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EXECUTIVE PERSPECTIVE: We Have the Tools to Restore Wildlife

Carter Roberts

11 Oct 2018

11 October 2018

“WWF believes in the power of restoration – the application of political will, technology and community wisdom to restore these magnificent animals and their landscapes so central to the ecology, the cultures and the economies of the most populous part of the world.”

Carter Roberts, President and CEO of WWF-US discusses the recent increase in the tiger population in Nepal and similar countries. He explains that we do in fact have the tools to restore endangered species and their environments and that doing so can boost local economies in the process. Sherah Beckley, Editor Thomson Reuters Sustainability.

Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris tigris) in the Ranthambore National Park, India. Photo credit: Jeff Goldberg.

Today the world has reason to celebrate. At a time when species across the globe are diminishing, a new survey just announced in Nepal shows their wild tiger number has nearly doubled from roughly 121 in 2009 to approximately 235 today. Nepal’s announcement matters because it shows we can face down the forces of poaching and illegal wildlife trade and bend the curves in rescuing species from extinction.

Decades of hunting and habitat destruction led to the steady decline of wild tigers from perhaps 100,000 in the early 1900s to as few as 3,200 in 2010. That year World Wildlife Fund (WWF) joined leaders from the “tiger range countries” at a major summit in St. Petersburg, Russia as they committed to double the number of wild tigers by 2022, the next Chinese year of the tiger.

Success in Nepal rests on partnership.

In two connected national parks – Bardia and Banke – WWF worked with the support of the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation (LDF) and an interconnected network of government officials, local communities, armed forces, and other partners to crack down on poaching and protect tiger habitat. Thanks in part to those efforts, tiger numbers more than quadrupled in the Bardia-Banke area, forests have returned, and springs have come back to life.

Nepal isn’t alone: tigers are ticking upward or more secure in India, Russia, China and Bhutan. Each country saw the documented number of tigers increase between 2010 and 2016. And each has a plan to maintain progress. Leadership matters. In India, where two-thirds of wild tigers live, Prime Minister Modi publicly embraced tiger conservation as “an imperative,” and has invested more resources than ever before.

China announced plans for a new system of national parks that will include protecting key habitat for Amur, or Siberian, tigers. Russia recently created the massive Bikin National Park, protecting an area that 10 percent of Amur tigers calls home. Bhutan will finance and permanently safeguard a 5 million-acre network of connected parks that provide habitat for tigers through its Bhutan for Life initiative.

What about the rest of the range countries? Some are taking extraordinary measures. Cambodia and Kazakhstan, which have not seen wild tigers in their landscapes for roughly 12 years and 70 years, respectively, are pursuing bold plans for tiger reintroduction that involve strengthening parks, restoring a prey base, and dramatically expanding rangers and guards to catch poachers and crime syndicates. In Sumatra, WWF is backing a novel approach by a company to manage 100,000 acres of tropical forest in the 30 Hills landscape.

It aims to prove that a standing forest can provide income for local communities and generate enough revenue to pay for its own protection – all while protecting tiger habitat.

The spotlight is now on southeast Asia, where an explosion in the indiscriminate use of snares has created new hazards for tigers and other wildlife. In Malaysia and Indonesia, rampant conversion of forest to palm oil plantations and global demand for tiger skins and bones continue to take a toll. Political will, strong in countries where tigers are recovering, is far from evident in much of this region.

These governments need to step up. If they do, it’s not too late for them to turn the tide. And progress in India, Nepal and other countries has shown us the ingredients for success.

First, put communities at the center of conservation. Villagers in Nepal and elsewhere are critical partners in anti-poaching patrols. Many communities benefit from a 50/50 income sharing system with national parks promoting tiger tourism – an income stream which disappears if tigers are killed off. A community fighting for the survival of tigers, rather than aiding poachers or turning a blind eye, will often mean the difference between success and failure.

Second, be smart about habitat protection. Curbing unsustainable commodity production and improving infrastructure development matters. But it needs to be done with an eye toward protecting the right habitats, including core areas for tigers to breed and corridors for them to disperse. WWF is focusing on 50 sites across Asia that will have the biggest impact on tiger populations, and we urge governments to take special care to conserve those areas.

Finally, political leadership is paramount.

National leaders set the pace in delivering progress for tigers and it requires a whole-of-government commitment to secure their future.

We need leaders of all tiger-range countries to set bold visions for tiger recovery, tied to concrete metrics and clear strategies. And we need citizens, business leaders and non-profits to hold leaders accountable for the pledges they made in St. Petersburg in 2010.

Nepal shows us what can be done. WWF believes in the power of restoration – the application of political will, technology and community wisdom to restore these magnificent animals and their landscapes so central to the ecology, the cultures and the economies of the most populous part of the world. The plans and the tools are right in front of us and now momentum is on our side.

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