A Russian roar

St. Petersburg was as cold and grey this November as the Germans had found it during the siege of 1941. It was not that hostile though, as a certain Putinesque charm had made the city roll out its warmth and cheer for visiting tiger conservationists. The International Tiger Forum (ITF) was advertised on all its major streets alongside Lacoste and Chanel. The Marinsky Palace, famously unoccupied by Queen Marie as her bedroom overlooked the posterior of an equine statue, had tigers projected on its walls at every turn.
Catherine the Great’s summer palace was lit up, all 152 rooms of it, and the amber room, normally reserved for quiet, special-booted visits, was now open to 200 and more guests trooping through the ballroom spilling wine with gay abandon. A special opera had been arranged at Yousep’s palace by the governor of St. Petersburg. And in the Blue Room of Konstantinov Palace in Strelnya, five premiers and a dozen ministers were arraigned waiting to talk tigers.
The half-a-dozen sub-species of Panthera tigris, that are still extant, have never had it so good since 1972 when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi inaugurated an international tiger conference in Delhi. But that was 30 years ago and the recent poaching escalation in India and Russia and a dramatic revision of numbers in both countries had meant the tiger was down to less than 3,500 worldwide and in imminent danger of extinction.
In stepped Bob Zoellick of the World Bank and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin of Russia, an odd couple indeed to save the tiger. Zoellick is a dour American mercantilist with an earnest expression that seeks to talk of his love of tigers but with little charisma to take it any further. Putin’s cold steel eyes betray little emotion for the species but he talks flamboyantly on wanting to save it and on every other trip to the Russian far east with the Goegraphic Society of Russia tries to cuddle a tiger cub or radio collar its mother. Mostly bare-chested in the Amur snow. The meeting of these two extraordinary passions had given rise to the ITF.
In Strelnya, they held a two-hour meeting with Wen Jiabao of China, Madhav Nepal of Nepal, Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh and Bouasone Bopavanh of Laos. In front of them were 12 ministers from tiger range states and wannabe tiger range states. The former included North Korea whose representative spoke with his counterpart from South Korea in the same session as I did. It was interesting to note that they were shelling each other at Yeonpyeong while they spoke but the fact that they were there for the fate of the tiger in the Korean peninsula was extraordinary. The latter, the wannabe tiger range states, included Iran and Kazakhstan, very keen to get the tiger back to their range. The Caspian or the Turan tiger went extinct in 1947 in Iran and the Iranians were keen to bring it back.
I wondered if the kind of controversy that exists in India on bringing back the cheetah plagues them as well.
Conservation has for the last century or so been on the back foot, and yet new ideas, out of the box solutions for species survival face enormous obstacles in countries that have millennia of conservation history to fall back on.
Also in the room were a hundred or so international tiger conservationists, managers and ambassadors for the species. They had brought into the room the distillate of the discussions at the Marinsky which for three days had debated and agreed on the Global Tiger Recovery Program (GTRP).
It was tremendously encouraging that all 14 range states had agreed to a common minimum program. It was also agreed that the next big meeting would once again be hosted by Mr Putin in Russia in 2022, the next year of the tiger, to measure the success in the 12 intervening years.
In my two talks at the plenary, especially when I talked for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), I re-emphasised the need to address the capacity needs of the man in the field. It was clear that while political will has to be built top down in some of our countries, capacity building of the frontline field staff has to be bottom up.
Therein lies the secret to the success of the ITF, or the GTRP or all other such acronyms. If the acronym TIGER is to survive, the battle must be fought at ground zero.
Now where was India in all this international posturing? At a senior level, India was conspicuously absent with no political leaders or senior bureaucrats attending. The small Indian delegation did a good job keeping the flag flying though. I was there representing both the IFAW and through its core committee, the Global Tiger Forum — the only intergovernmental alliance for the tigers.
This was minister Kamal Nath’s baby when he was at environment and forests. It has been given a new lease of life now that Jairam Ramesh has taken over the ministry and two decades of regional political adjustments has given way to a body that is serious about conserving forests and wildlife. What it needs now is for the world to acknowledge the seriousness with which India is addressing its latest tiger crisis. For that, a major jamboree is being planned this year but the tiger has seen enough of a political circus in Russia.
India must look forward and beyond and have a serious consultation, scientific and management-led out of the box thinking to save the tiger.
The conclave, if there is one, must get eminent thought leaders of conservation to come and present novel ideas to save the tiger. The government should listen to them, absorbing what is relevant and shelving that which is not feasible but doing so with an open mind and a large heart. Let this show not be one where we tout our own greatness. Let this be a time for the best in India and abroad to think of ground-level realities and convert the political goodwill of St. Petersburg into an on-ground action plan.
This will be the best advertisement of the new era of openness and urgency with which India is looking to save its national animal. And the best hope for the beast itself to roar well into this and the next century.

Vivek Menon is a practicing wildlife conservationist and environmental commentator

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