Saving the wild tiger: a Born Free Foundation conference

Jackie Chan's Wild Aid advert to save the tigerHere’s a rather delayed report from the tiger conference I attended at the Royal Geographical Society in December….

Experts from the Born Free Foundation and other bodies met in London following the International Tiger Forum in St Petersburg in November. It was interesting to hear their take on the outcome of the international forum, and how we must now proceed if we’re to stand a chance of saving the 3,200 tigers remaining in the wild.

Debbie Banks, head of the tiger campaign at the Environmental Investigation Agency, said the summit had had some degree of success in that £208m has been pledged by world leaders to tackle tiger poaching in countries like Nepal, India and Bhutan.

But she said that what is needed now is increased police presence, covert operations and improved customs so that more information on the smuggling of illegal tiger products can be gathered. “It needs to be intelligence-led, not money-led,” she argued. “Many governments have focussed too much on celebrated, isolated, seizures of tiger skins and bones – within their own locality. Information is not shared cross-border, and the possibility of integrated efforts is lost,” she explained.

She added that China must now show that it really is committed to tackling the problem in its own country. “If the Chinese president is serious, then he will now send advocates to the army, engage the anti-corruption bureau, have meetings with the police and launch a media campaign,” she said. “If the government of China can spend $31 million on the Olympics, it can take the right action here too if it really wants to,” she added.

Steve Trent of innovative campaigning body Wild Aid, argued that reducing demand for tiger products is the most important factor. I was fascinated to hear about Wild Aid’s recent advertising campaign in China which used well-known celebrities like Jackie Chan to hit home the message that “when the buying stops, the killing stops”.

He argued against the idea of farming tigers in captivity for their body parts (some people have suggested this as a way of meeting demand without taking tigers from the wild). “Tiger farms stimulate demand for tiger products; it’s saying that you can make some money from this. So we need to kill off demand,” he said. With up to 10,000 tigers now held in farms, circuses and attractions around the world, I agree with Steve that any tiger held in captivity sends the wrong message.

But it wasn’t all doom and gloom at the conference: Will Travers of the Born Free Foundation sounded a cautious note of optimism about our potential to save the species from extinction. He drew an interesting parallel between the plight of the elephant in Kenya in the 1980s and that of the tiger in Asia. “Since the Kenyan government burned its ivory stockpile in 1989, the number of elephants in Kenya has doubled. We can turn things around,” he said.

Let’s hope so.

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