The catfight within tiger conservation: Why all stakeholders need to start working together (commentary)

  • After 12 years of tiger conservation efforts across borders, the Global Tiger Recovery Program (GTRP) ends in 2022 with most tiger range countries coming in with failed attempts at saving their tigers.
  • Tiger conservation can be successful only if the six stakeholder groups involved in it — Intergovernmental organizations (IGOs), governments, NGOs, financiers, forums, and media — came together with shared goals.
  • The next Global Tiger Initiative summit at Vladivostok in 2022 will be the ideal moment to repair the flaws of the previous GTI and create true cooperation with all the stakeholders, with full support of all tiger range countries.
  • The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

Why is cooperation within tiger conservation so hard to accomplish?

Despite efforts for decades, tigers are threatened with extinction. Twelve years ago, when the Global Tiger Recovery Program (GTRP) started with much-needed renewed attention for this illustrious big cat, only 3,200 tigers were left in the wild. At the time, an apparently innocent joke was often made within the world of tiger conservation: there are more parties talking about tiger conservation than the number of tigers in the wild. But was it really an innocent joke?

What people meant was that this new initiative to save tigers was meant to fail, because making hundreds of parties with divergent goals stop talking and cooperate by working together is hard to accomplish.

In 2022, the GTRP ends, with disappointing results. Yes, the number of tigers has improved, but only because of three or four countries. In 2022 at least six out of the 13 tiger range countries (TRCs), and probably more, will report devastating news about their tigers.

Looking into who is involved in tiger conservation, we can identify six stakeholder groups, based on their contributions: Intergovernmental organizations (IGOs), Governments, NGOs, Financiers, Forums, and Media.

IGOs: Invisible and powerless, but necessary

Because of the poor state of wildlife around the world, due to extensive hunting, poaching, habitat loss, and lack of prey, the United Nations (UN), an IGO, was awakened by the outcries of many NGOs in the ’60s and ’70s. In 1975, the UN finally came up with CITES, a multilateral trade treaty to protect endangered plants and animals. This only helped to slow down the international trade of tigers, but nothing more.

Because of the growing Chinese demand for tigers due to their inclusion in the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) catalog, it became more difficult to poach, trade, and transport them via ordinary routes. As a result, international wildlife crime evolved. Existing organizations like Interpol, got involved with wildlife crime but it was hardly a priority to them. In 1997, the UN created its own organization to fight wildlife and other crimes: the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), which also proved to be ineffective.

In 2007, the UN finally stepped up with their UN Environmental Program (UNEP), which already existed but was only acting like a toothless tiger.

Most other IGOs involved in tiger conservation work behind the scenes, like the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), famous for its Red List, the world’s most comprehensive information source on the global conservation status of animal, fungi, and plant species. You mostly see or hear about IGOs when things go wrong or have to change, but mostly they’re invisible. However, they are quite necessary to make governments do the right things: they set the guidelines and the conditions and help build their financial capacity.

The current ways of IGOs are not effective enough, as habitat loss, deforestation and poaching are still thriving. This happens because all UN countries are sovereign: they can do things without real consequences. But be assured, without these IGOs, tigers and many other species would be already extinct.

All tiger range countries, their organizations and global parties involved in tiger conservation need to work together. Image courtesy of Camilla Malvestiti.

Governments: A battle between wildlife and economic progress

History has shown that if tiger conservation fell only under the responsibility of governments, tigers wouldn’t exist anymore. Around 1900, there were 30 countries with tigers, now there are only ten with less than 7 percent of the original tiger habitats left.

Governments make or break conservation. If they don’t set a priority on saving tigers, it’s not even worth trying, as we have seen with Malaysia, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Sometimes, it’s impossible to make plans. Myanmar has encountered massive domestic turbulence, and it shows: the numbers of tigers in Myanmar have decreased, and they will probably lose all their tigers in the coming years.

TRCs are mostly developing countries. The governments give more precedence to jobs, healthcare, and education, so choosing lucrative palm oil, mining, roads, dams, and other investments that create income at the expense of nature is easy for them.

The important role of NGOs: Grassroots action and a watchdog

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) play an important role in making local, regional and national governments act in the interests of tigers. They can help in many aspects such as setting up plans, funding, and knowledge. They can also be a watchdog or whistleblower, in case governments fail or refuse to act, which happens regularly.

We also see NGOs play important roles at grassroots level activities, like raising awareness, educating people, collecting waste, training sniffer dogs to catch poachers, helping victims of tiger attacks, etc.

Some well-known tiger NGOs are WTI, Freeland, WWF, CI, Phoenix Fund, Panthera, WildTeam, Born Free Foundation, WPSI, WCS, MyCAT, ENV, and IFAW. Under their shade, hundreds of grassroots level NGOs contribute, often unappreciated.

The underestimated importance of financiers in tiger conservation

While the governments of TRCs invest a lot of money in nature conservation, it is just not enough; so external financing is vital. The NGOs often work with people and companies around the world that support them as donors. IGOs and governments are often funded by ‘the environment bank,’ a nickname for the Global Environment Facility (GEF), which is funded by the 40 richest countries.

The GEF provides the funds for 18 of the most important parties in wildlife conservation, like UNEP and IUCN, but also for WWF and CI. Since 1992, the GEF has provided close to $20.5 billion in grants, providing support to nearly 24,000 civil society and community initiatives in 133 countries.

The GEF is essential for conservation in general, and without it, tigers would have been gone already.

View all of Mongabay’s tiger coverage here.

Although illegal, trade of tiger parts is still a widespread problem. Photo by Thamizhpparithi Maari, from Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Forums: Overarching entities without authority or accountability

In 2010, when tiger numbers were at an all-time low, governments, IGOs and NGOs gathered in St. Petersburg. This Global Tiger Initiative (GTI), organized by the WorldBank and hosted by Russian president Vladimir Putin himself, resulted in the Global Tiger Recovery Plan (GTRP). Putin even said: “It is very important to save this wonderful, imperial creature for future generations.”

A comprehensive plan of doubling the number of tigers in the TRCs looked amazing on paper. But reality shows that, even though the number of tigers will rise, most countries didn’t commit to what was agreed upon. In fact, three of the TRCs lost all their tigers while three others lost more than half of their tiger population. While analyzing the disappointing results, it is evident that accountability and a supervising authority was missing.

There are a couple of forums that play a role in tiger conservation. In Indonesia, the Harimau Kita Forum connects related parties in Sumatra, and on a wider scale we see the Global Tiger Forum (GTF). Established in 1994, it is the only intergovernmental body working exclusively for the conservation of tigers in the wild. It’s a small agency and works from India, trying to connect the dots of the Global Tiger Recovery Plan, keeping track of the progress of TRCs, and helping them create and execute conservation policies.

The GTF, however, doesn’t have the position, the authority, nor the ability to be the supervising body in tiger conservation. So, their success remains dependent on what is allowed by the TRCs. The result is that the GTF unfortunately plays a minor role in the shadows.

The unappreciated role of the press

The last group in tiger conservation success is the press. However, their role is not always appreciated. They can be harsh and honest, also exposing the failures or corruption of governments and officials, sometimes endangering important economical projects. Because of this, transparency regarding what happens in tiger conservation is often hard to find. In certain TRCs the press is only able to publish what the government wants them to, becoming merely a docile instrument of power.

Why is tiger conservation so difficult?

We already know that the GTI results for 2022 will be far from what was planned. The question is: how is that possible? How was it possible that these powerful groups were not able to create a system to accomplish the goals?

The easy answer is that some countries didn’t care enough. They agreed to a plan, knowing it wouldn’t backfire on them, and promised many things. They just didn’t do enough to rescue tigers, like Bangladesh, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Malaysia, and Vietnam.

If we take Malaysia, for example, palm oil and tree logging are major contributors to their economy. With tax money coming in from companies and employees working in the palm oil industry, Malaysia can pay for education, infrastructure, healthcare, etc. to further develop the country. Conserving ‘a few tigers’ was not at all a priority, even though that will never be their official statement.

With IGOs, too, there are priority issues. One example is the World Bank, a unique global partnership fighting poverty worldwide through sustainable solutions, which was the driving force behind the GTI. But within two years, the World Bank (unofficially) withdrew from the project and was never seen again.

A tiger in Ranthambore National Park, Rajasthan, India. Image by Rhett A. Butler.

Even the GEF has side effects. Most NGOs don’t have the luxury of large budgets and can only survive when their work is truly appreciated by their donors. Without success, donors turn their backs. These NGOs are supposed to work together with GEF-funded organizations that have a financial position to market a strong brand, which is the only way to get all the press attention, even about successes that can’t be attributed to them. This uneven level playing field creates a situation where involved parties don’t really want to work together.

Lastly, it’s important to mention the impact of the number of NGOs on the efficiency of governments. We know that most governments have limited resources. Getting their job done is already extremely difficult. Working together with just a few NGOs is possible, but what if a government needs to cooperate with more than 100 NGOs? The fragmentation within the NGO landscape doesn’t help tiger conservation as it leads to lack of focus within governments.

How to get real success in tiger conservation?

Sources say there will be another GTI, to be held in the fall of 2022 in Vladivostok, Russia. It is expected that a new plan, already being prepared, will be presented, and the parties involved will proceed with what they have already achieved.

But what is truly needed for additional, or rather real, success? What is needed to prevent the failures in the last 12 years of countries like Bangladesh, Malaysia, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and Myanmar?

This next Vladivostok summit will be the ideal moment to repair the flaws of the previous GTI and create true cooperation with all the mentioned stakeholders. Every transformation plan without acknowledged leadership is destined to fail. And frankly, the GTRP obviously lacked leadership and authority. This must improve if they want to make tiger conservation successful.

It also seems logical that the GTF gets an upgrade: full support of all tiger range countries, more funds, strong leadership, and a strong international staff with excellent expertise. This agency must be independent and should get the authority to intervene if countries don’t deliver what they committed to. These interventions must be agreed upon in advance, so countries can expect what will happen, as accountability is key for success.

It’s vital to stop the catfight, where parties involved only fight to protect their own territory. The current situation calls for desperate measures to ensure that all stakeholders work together successfully on the ultimate goal: that more tigers get more space to roam in more countries and live in absolute freedom, without human involvement.

Banner image: A tiger in Ranthambore National Park, India. Image by Rhett A/ Butler/Mongabay.

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