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Why the World Bank Is Saving Tigers

“Wait, what?” people would say when I told them I worked for the Global Tiger Initiative at the World Bank. “The Bank is saving tigers?” For a financial institution that strives to end world poverty, maybe it’s difficult to connect the dots to tiger conservation. The idea is that poverty cannot be eradicated without a sustainable...

“Wait, what?” people would say when I told them I worked for the Global Tiger Initiative at the World Bank. “The Bank is saving tigers?” For a financial institution that strives to end world poverty, maybe it’s difficult to connect the dots to tiger conservation. The idea is that poverty cannot be eradicated without a sustainable environment that supports not just human life, but other species.

logoThe GTI was established in 2008, rumored to be a “pet project” of Robert Zoellick, then president of the World Bank. Its mission is to double the world’s population of wild tigers—which now hovers around 3,200—by 2022, the next year of the tiger in the Chinese calendar.

For the first time in history, the world’s 13 tiger range countries came together in order to achieve this goal. So during the last week of Zoellick’s tenure in June 2012, he called the senior managers into a meeting and said, “‘It’s a thousand dollar question. What happens to the GTI after I leave?’” recalls GTI team leader Andrey Kushlin. “We were moved from an incubator into real life.”

On July 1, 2013, the small team moved from the arm of the Bank that deals with knowledge and innovation to the arm that deals with sustainable development policies. What does that mean for the future? “We are showing that the GTI wasn’t just a one-time flick. It’s a program which countries need and want,” says Kushlin.

I spoke with Kushlin, my former colleague, about GTI’s newest chapter.

What has worked in the past for GTI?

Our summit in St. Petersburg in November 2010 attracted global attention and brought the issue of tigers to politicians. It has empowered countries to pursue these priorities. In 2008, when the GTI was launched, we were testing out who would be interested in hosting the summit. To the surprise of many, Russia came out and said, ‘Our prime minister [Vladimir Putin] would like to host the summit.’ That had a catalytic effect. That a person of that caliber was keen, others started to pay attention to it. Peer pressure is something which continues to work miraculously well at different levels.

How do international politics affect relations with countries the U.S. has tension with?

Wildlife conservation is one of few issues which actually unite countries to come to the table to discuss things. The St. Petersburg summit brought together countries such as the U.S. and Iran, North and South Korea. Whatever the international political issues are, they don’t affect tiger and wildlife conservation.

The summit also received some celebrity involvement, right?

Leonardo DiCaprio had an emergency landing and Harrison Ford sent video message. Supermodel Naomi Campbell, Russian singer Ilya Lagutenko and Bollywood actress Preity Zinta also came. They were all known to be affiliated with conservation so when they got an invitation they were interested in being part of it. It helped carry the main message.


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Andrey Kushlin discussing Tiger Summit plans with Harrison Ford. Photo by Misuzu Yamada.

What’s new in GTI’s most current plan?

Late last year, ministers of all 13 tiger range countries got together in Thimphu, Bhutan, to take stock and sharpen their agenda. Now, all the countries have put together a new plan (key performance indicators) to measure their progress, such as camera trapping to monitor tigers and their prey. More advances in science employ genetic sampling that helps develop a more detailed analysis of the movement of tiger populations. New momentum is also being added to boost transboundary collaboration.

Why is transboundary collaboration so important?

Tigers don’t need visas to cross borders, they roam from place to place. Park managers need to be able to see each other regularly, have joint management activities, and work with surrounding communities. It is also very important for curtailing illegal wildlife trade. Poachers sometime enter from one country and do their dirty work across the border, then take the killed animal into other’s the supply chain. There are plenty of reports on seizures of shipments of illegal wildlife product in Bangkok International Airport.

What are the newest challenges that exist in tiger conservation?

The demand for tiger and other wildlife parts which has taken a new shape, falling under a definition of a transboundary organized crime. There was a saying calling wildlife crime a “crime of need,” where the poor local communities had to survive by being engaged in poaching activities. It is now directly linked to “crimes of greed.” The illegal wildlife trade is now a global industry, a cross-continental trade. The crimes are clearly syndicated, and they are using the very same mechanisms and delivery channels as drugs and illegal arms.

Also, a new phenomenon is the growth of the middle class in East Asia which has contributed to the consumption of these products. It’s more of a luxury consumption, a status issue. It is something which can be addressed through a very well targeted consumer awareness campaign. There is a lot of talk about China being the huge consumer of everything, but the campaigns against shark fin soup are making a difference.

What is the most pressing challenge right now?

Habitat destruction and degradation. You need a well gauged mosaic of places for tigers to breed and disperse and maintain their genetically viable population. Over the last 20 years in Sumatra, the remaining available habitats for tigers as well as rhinos and elephants have been decimated because of a huge rush to convert pristine land to oil palm. Should there have been some long-term thinking and smart spatial planning before they started this conversion process, which was attributed to economic development, their key wildlife populations and habitats would not be jeopardized.

In the neighboring peninsular Malaysia, they have committed to making spatial development plans in a way that preserves connectivity of wildlife habitats. If they go ahead with a highway that cuts across a corridor which connects wildlife from one area to another, additional provisions are made like overpasses or tunnels.


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Members of GTI search for tiger tracks in Chitwan National Park. Photo by Mahendra Shrestha.


What do you see as GTI’s biggest challenges?

The challenge is to really maintain the momentum that was generated at the political level and to start showing results. That will create a very important cascading effect.

Based on your experience, what are the biggest signs of hope for wild tigers?

One is the results coming in from ongoing tiger monitoring efforts, as in Nepal. Preliminary results of their tiger census released last month, which are linked to efforts of policing national parks and community engagement, show a 63 percent increase over the last five years. Even discounting for possible methodology differences between sampling dates, it still undoubtedly shows a solid increase.

Second, there is now increasing interest not only among political leaders but the private sector. They are trying to be more constructively engaged in wildlife conservation. The Confederation of Indian Industry, with a membership of over 90,000 companies, partnered with GTI to launch the Indian Wildlife Business Council last year. They are coming together to identify and develop practical ways for business solutions to be wildlife-friendly.


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Kushlin speaking in Vladivostok, Russia. Photo by Mahendra Shrestha.


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Meet the Author

Sasha Ingber
Sasha writes for National Geographic. Her articles have also appeared in national and international publications including The Atlantic, The Washington Post Magazine, The American Scholar, and The Jerusalem Post. Follow her on twitter @SashaIngber.