Summit offers "last best hope' for tigers

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A global summit on wild tigers wrapped up in Russia Wednesday, when all of the participating nations agreed to an unprecedented international commitment to save Asia's most iconic species.

Leaders from 13 countries that are home to wild tigers (Panthera tigris) signed the St. Petersburg Declaration on Tiger Conservation to implement a Global Tiger Recovery Program (GTRP), during the closing day of the ceremony.

The international program aims at doubling the continental tiger population by 2022, the next Year of the Tiger.

Vietnam was among the signatories of the GTRP.

A new deal

"The World Bank and principal donors were waiting for a message from the countries. Now this message has been formulated. I am very optimistic," said John Robinson, vice president of US-based Wildlife Conservation Society.

After a two-year process of sharing knowledge and best practices, the program was developed to include a wide range of policy goals.

Signatories to the pledge have promised to preserve and enhance tiger habitats, establish a cooperative system for trans-boundary landscape management and restore tigers to their former range.

According to a recent analysis of international enforcement data, parts of at least 1,069 tigers have been seized over the past decade in Asia's 13 tiger range countries: Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Russia, Thailand and Vietnam.

Tiger numbers plummeted from about 100,000 a century ago to about 3,200 to 3,500 today.

Losing ground

Tigers and their habitat have declined by 40 percent in the last decade alone. Development has consumed and fragmented the animals' natural habitat.

A single wild male tiger may occupy and defend a territory of up to 100 square kilometers.

The program seeks to empower the tiger range countries, where tigers occupy around 1.2 million square kilometers, and address the domestic and trans-boundary threats.

It also seeks to stimulate international funding to realize the conservation goals.

This is the first effort from tiger range countries to address all of the threats to tiger survival. It also represents the first step in estimating the incremental costs necessary to save the species.

The program will begin with a five-year US$350 million plan of action. This funding was largely triggered by the summit, World Bank tiger preservation plan coordinator Andrei Kuchlin told AFP on the sidelines of the forum.

Wild animal aficionado and the summit host Vladimir Putin, who has been photographed kissing a tigress and tagging polar bears, called on the international community to save the tiger from "catastrophe." He cited Mahatma Gandhi as saying "a country that is good for the tiger is good for everybody," AFP reported Wednesday.

A deadly gateway

During the summit, a report on the black market sales of the large wild felines in Myanmar and Thailand was presented to the international delegation. The research was accompanied by a short documentary called "Closing a Deadly Gateway."

It illustrated a flourishing illegal trade in tigers and other wildlife despite national and international laws.

The landscape between Myanmar and Thailand holds the greatest hope for tiger population recovery in the Greater Mekong region, where tiger numbers have dropped from an estimated 1,200 during the last Year of the Tiger in 1998 to about 350 today, said Peter Cutter, coordinator for WWF Greater Mekong Region's tiger conservation in Thailand.

"But this can only happen if there are unprecedented and coordinated regional efforts to tackle illegal wildlife trade," Cutter said.

In August, Vietnam established an inter-agency committee for wildlife trade control, aimed at tackling illegal wildlife trade. The government is now actively investing in ecosystem services that will improve the livelihoods of communities and engage them in conservation.

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