By Ford Cochran
On the eve of this weekend’s spring meetings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, World Bank Group President Robert Zoellick unveiled Vanishing Icons–a new National Geographic exhibition of photographs of tigers, lions, and other big cats–at the bank’s Washington, D.C. headquarters. The event also marked the publication of Environment Matters: Banking on Biodiversity, the bank’s annual review of environmental research, accomplishments, and challenges.
Photo by Simone D. McCourtie, World Bank
The United Nations declared 2010 the International Year of Biodiversity. It is also the traditional Chinese calendar Year of the Tiger.
The World Bank has partnered with National Geographic, the Smithsonian, the Global Environment Facility, and the International Tiger Coalition in a Global Tiger Initiative aimed at protecting severely threatened wild tigers from extinction and doubling the number of tigers in the wild by 2020, the next Year of the Tiger.
Photo by Ryan Rayburn, World Bank
“In Africa,” Zoellick observed, “there’s a saying: ‘The leopard takes the last one.’ You don’t want to be the last one. The real tragedy is that the world’s big cats are the ones who have to be afraid of all of us.
“Everybody grows up with pictures of tigers. Everybody grows up knowing what this species is about. People are shocked when they learn that the door is almost closed on the world’s tigers. Ten years from now, we don’t just want to have photographs and animals in zoos.”
Photo of World Bank Group President Robert Zoellick by Ryan Rayburn, World Bank
In 1900 approximately 100,000 tigers roamed free in Asia. Today, only about 3,500 tigers survive in the wild.
“We are using the appeal of these charismatic cats as a clarion call,” said Zoellick, “to draw attention to the need to protect biodiversity and to remind people of the wildlife and wilderness we stand to lose if we do not balance conservation and economic development.” He noted that the World Bank currently invests more than ten percent of its annual portfolio in wildlife and environmental conservation efforts.
National Geographic magazine Editor-in-Chief Chris Johns, Smithsonian Institution Secretary G. Wayne Clough, and ministers from tiger-range countries Thailand and Indonesia joined Zoellick in sharing passionate remarks on the need to protect the world’s dwindling tiger populations.
Johns, a long-time National Geographic photographer before becoming editor of the Society’s flagship magazine, related the tale of an eye-to-eye encounter with a young cheetah cub while on assignment. “None of the big cats were put on this Earth for our gratification. They’re an important part of every ecosystem in which they reside. Their demise is unacceptable.”
Photo of National Geographic magazine Editor-in-Chief Chris Johns by Ryan Rayburn, World Bank
Johns noted that, in collaboration with National Geographic photographer/filmmakers and Explorers-in-Residence Dereck and Beverly Joubert, the Society has launched a Big Cats Initiative to promote conservation of endangered felines.
Secretary Clough observed that “the Smithsonian knows something about extinction. We have a number of extinct species in our collections. If you would like to see the last passenger pigeon, Martha, we have her in a box. Martha represents the last of a species that not so long ago numbered some three billion on the planet. The Tasmanian tiger wasn’t actually a tiger, despite the name…. Now it’s gone. Other hominids, our closest kin, went extinct in many cases because they didn’t understand their environment and how to live in it.”
Keshav Varma directs the World Bank’s Global Tiger Initiative and emceed the event. I spoke with him afterward.
What is the Global Tiger Initiative doing to save the world’s wild tigers?
Never before have tiger-range countries come together as one group. Everyone’s feeling the power of sharing issues and experiences. We began in 2008 with the World Bank, the World Wildlife Fund, the International Tiger Coalition, and others coming together as a partnership to collaborate on solutions. About a year ago the Smithsonian joined us, and then National Geographic.
Now we’re creating a sense of urgency, and using the power of the World Bank to create the highest level political will. We’re also building capacity, training practitioners, connecting global knowledge with local practice. We’re working to bring new ideas into the field of conservation thinking, financing green infrastructure, bolstering professionalism in the practice of park management.
Next, we have to develop resource plans for tiger range countries and projects.
Photo by Simone D. McCourtie, World Bank
What’s the biggest challenge to the tigers’ survival?
What tigers are showing us is the difficulty of managing ecosystems on the boundaries of countries. Most tiger habitat is in conflict areas or straddling national borders. There has to be international cooperation.
Also, If we don’t clamp down on trafficking and put the heat on with interdiction [of tiger poachers and illegal goods made from tigers], it isn’t going to work out.
Heads of state from tiger range countries will gather in Vladivostok this September for the International Tiger Summit. Why is the meeting so important?
Vladivostok will be historic. It’s the first time in the history of conservation that global political leaders will get together around animals and habitat.
This is about a new paradigm in which the value of ecosystems and wildlife have to be factored into international plans for development.
Ford Cochran directs Mission Programs online for National Geographic. He has written for National Geographic magazine and NG Books, and edits BlogWild–a digest of Society exploration, research, and events–and the Ocean Now blog. Ford studied English literature at the College of William and Mary and biogeochemistry at Harvard and Yale, with a focus on volcanoes, forests, and long-term controls on atmospheric CO2. He was an assistant professor of geology and environmental science at the University of Kentucky before joining the National Geographic staff.