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Analysis & Opinion
24.11.10 Tiger Balm
By Rose Griffin

The St. Petersburg declaration on Tiger Conservation was signed by the heads of 13 tiger range countries (those where tigers have or have had a presence) on Tuesday. Pledging to double the number of wild tigers in the world by 2022, the declaration marked the biggest international effort to save a single species to date. But despite the deal, the survival of Russia’s Amur tiger remains threatened by poachers, deforestation and the illegal trade in tiger products, which continue to command high prices in the neighboring China.

The number of tigers living in the wild has plummeted from about 100,000 a century ago to an estimated 3,200 to 3,500 today. In the last decade alone, tiger numbers have fallen by 40 percent.

At the forum, the Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin described the situation facing the world’s tiger population as “tragic.” A long-time tiger fan, Putin was presented with a tiger cub for his 56th birthday two years ago, and had a celebrated photo session with a sedated Amur tiger in the same year. Further high-profile support came from Hollywood actor Leonardo DiCaprio. Facing a number of technical difficulties in reaching the forum, for which he was touted as a “real man” by Putin, DiCaprio donated $1 million to the World Wildlife Fund (WFF) tiger conservation programs earlier this week.

Within Russia the tiger population is estimated at around 400 Amur tigers, which live in the country’s Far Eastern regions, primarily Primorye. Russia has attracted foreign funding for tiger conservation, and in the recent years the fine for poaching has been increased to $20,000, with a maximum jail term of three years. In July, the Russian government designated the Korean pine – an essential component of the tiger’s habitat – an endangered species. Working together with China, Russia has also established cross-border tiger preservation areas.

But despite some positive developments, strategies to protect the tigers’ habitat and prosecute poachers are not always adequate. The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) estimates that 40 tigers are poached in Russia every year. Until as late as 2007, the fine for wild tiger poaching was only $50. Masha Vorontsova, the director of the Russian branch of IFAW, told Russia Profile that the driving force behind increased poaching in Russia is the growing wealth in Asian countries, particularly China. “In Chinese medicine tiger products are used to increase a person’s life force. As certain sectors of the Chinese society become wealthier, demand is growing.”

Vorontsova was instrumental in raising the fine for poaching, but said that the problem has grown worse over the past year. “Since January 2009, the inspections have been moved to the local level, which means that federal anti-poaching brigades can’t intervene.” She added that the earlier federal scheme, Inspection Tiger, had access to funds from foreign NGOs, which provided cars, radios and uniforms, as well as adding to the inspectors’ salaries. “It was a good job by local standards and it was prestigious to work there.”

Vorontsova also pointed to a loophole in the Russian law that makes it hard to effectively prosecute those involved in the later stages of the trade, even if they have been caught dealing in tiger products. “In the Russian legal system, you have to prove that a suspect is guilty of poaching, but those who are caught are normally middlemen trying to sell the products on,” Vorontsova said. She added that improving cooperation with China in clamping down on illegal trade is also “vital.”

A large amount of the foreign investment in Russian tiger conservation has gone into the Bikin Valley, which accounts for ten percent of the Amur tigers’ habitat. Phase one of a funding program by the German state KfW Development Bank has already been implemented in the region. Work has been done to prevent illegal logging, alongside attempts to diversify the local economy, to include more farming of pine kernels, berries and mushrooms – sustainable resources which can also prove more profitable than logging.

Speaking at the forum, Jurgen Becker, the German deputy minister of the environment, nature conservation and nuclear safety, announced plans for another chunk of funding for maintenance of the eco-system in the Russian Far East: “?2.5 million has already been invested and I can announce today that an additional ?4 million will be made available for the second stage of the program,” Becker said.

But conservationists are up against a lucrative business. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimated that in 2009, the annual market volume for tiger parts was about 150 tiger skins and about 1,500 kilograms of bones, with an estimated total market value of about $5 million.

Yuri Fedotov, the executive director of the UNODC, told the conference that “UNODC is well positioned to support the tiger range countries. We can help them enhance their capacity to identify, trace, freeze and confiscate the proceeds of these activities; improve information sharing and enhance regional and international law enforcement cooperation."
UNODC governs the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which includes tigers. In addition to CITES, a memorandum of understanding was signed during the forum to establish the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime. Tiger range countries, particularly the poorest, are also set to benefit from financial support from the World Bank, which announced plans during the forum to provide $100 million to tiger conservation projects in the future.
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