Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is no one’s idea of an environmentalist. Putting aside his more general authoritarian tendencies, TIME’s 2007 Person of the Year has squeezed the space for civil society to operate, including in Russia’s nascent environmental movement. He’s favored the exploitation of Russia’s bountiful natural resources over preserving its nature, most recently allowing a polluting paper mill to reopen on the shore’s of Siberia’s Lake Baikal, the world’s oldest and deepest freshwater lake. And he’s done little to fix Russia’s existing environmental woes, the hangover from the Soviet era, when there was virtually no check on pollution. (See my 2007 stories on the ongoing radiation threat in the city of Chelyabinsk.)
But for all his faults, the steely eyed Putin does have a soft spot for one thing: big cats. Putin apparently loves wild tigers, which can still be found in pockets in the wild of Siberia and the Russian Far East. The Russian premier received a tiger cub for his 56th birthday, and he’s been photographed helping wildlife scientists track and tag wild tigers. The animals need all the help they can get—experts estimate there are little more than 3,000 tigers living outside captivity now, down from more than 100,000 a century ago. So Putin on Sunday launched a five-day international conference in St. Petersburg on tiger conservation, where environmental advocates, scientists and donors (including World Bank president Robert Zoellick) will debate ways to arrest the rapid decline in tiger numbers—and hopefully put the animal on a road to recovery.
They’ll need to act quickly—World Wildlife Fund director-general James Leape told the meeting on Sunday that tigers might be extinct within 12 years if nothing is done to save them. (Under Chinese astrology, 2010 is the Year of the Tiger—the next one won’t be for another 12 years.) But tigers present a tall challenge to conservationists. The animals roam far and wide—there’s more than 1.5 million sq. km of possible habitat for the tiger through much of eastern Asia—so it’s difficult to protect them in a few large reserves. Much of their range crosses national borders, making international cooperation all the more necessary—albeit in a region not known for its warm cross-border relations. The Global Tiger Recovery Programme aims to create a top-down framework for saving tiger habitat and supporting the 13 Tiger Range nations with national level conservation projects, all with the goal of doubling the wild tiger population by 2022. But it won’t be cheap—the cost of the initial phase of the program is $350 million, which would go towards establishing reserves, monitoring wild populations and containing poaching. Most urgently an initial $35 million is needed—that could fill the funding gap needed to protect and monitor the last existing refuges for wild tigers, under an innovative plan outlined by a number of wildlife experts in an article in PLoS Biology published this summer.
There are already small steps of progress on tiger conservation—Russia adopted a ban on Korean Pine logging ahead of the summit, which will lessen the pressure on the Amur tiger habitat. India, whose tiger population has dropped 50%, will soon announce the results of its first tiger census since 2002, while the anti-poaching group TRAFFIC has punched an agreement with the Wa minority group in Burma to shut down markets where poached tigers are sold as part of traditional Asian medicine. On the money side, the Wildlife Conservation Society announced a donation of $5 million a year over the next decade toward conserving tiger source sites.
So can the tigers recover? If the adoration of the public—and world leaders in particular—were all it took, tigers would be back on the rise. The New York Times has a neat story today on why powerful men seem to be particularly drawn to big cats:
“Leaders especially like to think of themselves as having the virtues of large cats,” said Stephen R. Kellert, a professor emeritus and senior research scholar at Yale University who studies human-animal relationships. “They like the image of the stand-alone, solitary yet fearsome hunter.”
Dogs and wolves, however, don’t get the same respect:
It is really apparent that wild dogs engender a real visceral hatred,” said Luke Hunter, executive vice president of Panthera, a nonprofit based in New York and London that works to save large cats. Ranchers, shepherds and other livestock owners, he said, “are venomous toward wild dogs in a way that they are not to big cats.”
Unfortunately, a totally cool public image won’t be enough to save the tigers. And it’s far from clear where the money needed to really mobilize a plan for their recovery will come from—nearly all of the countries where the tigers are found are developing, with no shortage of pressing needs for public funds. What might be needed are on-the-ground, locall focused solutions, rather than big international conferences, as Steven Galster, the director of FREELAND Foundation, suggests in an op-ed for the International Herald Tribune. But what the tigers can’t afford is any more delay.