- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Wild tigers have a newfound friend: the World Bank. World Bank President Robert B. Zoellick announced Monday that the bank is starting a coordinated effort with scientists, world governments, celebrities and nongovernment organizations to bring tigers back from the brink of extinction. The Smithsonian’s National Zoo, International Tiger Coalition and Global Environment Facility are joining in the effort.

“This whole market needs a kind of global intervention in order to make [tiger conservation] effective,” said Keshav Varma, director of the bank’s East Asia and Pacific branches, who is coordinating the effort. Because of the World Bank’s presence in tiger countries and its convening power, it will also act as the vehicle for science and technology to reach the remote areas, he said. “Through the alliance, it actually creates a global alliance that impacts local areas.”

National Zoo Director John Berry called the initiative “the most important conservation initiative in the world.”

In the past century, more than 96 percent of the world’s wild tigers died out, leaving less than 4,000 still roaming from Siberia to Sumatra.

But Richard Damania, an economist with the World Bank in the South Asia region’s environmental unit, said tiger populations in protected wild habitat can increase 5 percent to 8 percent a year.

“Conserving tigers is really a shorthand for conserving other species,” said Eric Dinerstein, chief scientist and vice president of the World Wildlife Fund’s Conservation Science Program, a partner in the initiative. He called tigers an “umbrella species” at the top of food chains where they live and said protecting tigers and their habitats also protects land for other unique animals and plants.

“If you just focus on tigers and their needs and protecting their habitats, you’d get 80 to 90 percent of other species covered, as well,” he said. “It’s very important to have the top predators preserved. Not having top predators in place disrupts the system.”

While recent local conservation efforts have revived Siberian tiger populations, Mr. Zoellick said, “we’re losing the larger campaign.”

The biggest challenge tigers face comes from growing economies and a growing poaching industry, he said. He added, “If tigers are going to be saved, they must come to be seen as more valuable alive than dead.”

Mr. Damania said the World Bank will conduct meetings with government representatives around the world in the next six months to discuss how conservation efforts can improve. He said the bank won’t know until after those meetings how much money it will put toward the initiative.

“As economies expand, tiger habitats shrivel and shrink and tiger populations shrivel and shrink,” he said. “Add poaching to that and you have a crisis on your hands.”

The National Zoo’s senior scientist, John Seidensticker, said he thought the World Bank could be the only organization capable of fully coordinating tiger conservation efforts. With the World Bank initiative, “tigers may have a chance,” he said.

“We have a moral obligation to make sure we fit into the world together,” he said. “If we don’t care about preserving life on Earth, then we don’t care about anything. A world without tigers would be a world without hope.”

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