The 2010 Global Tiger Summit
The biggest global tiger conservation event, the Global Tiger Summit, will happen for only the second time in history in a few months. The first summit occurred in 2010, the last Lunar Year of the Tiger. The World Bank and one of the largest and well-known environmental non-profits, World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF), initiated the meeting and lead the vision. It was a historic moment when the National Tiger Recovery Program was adopted by the 13 tiger range countries and other participants. All tiger range countries pledged to double the number of tigers within their country by 2022.
There are important lessons to learn from the last 12 years of global tiger conservation efforts. For this year’s International Tiger Day, I want to reflect on 1) why focusing solely on tiger population numbers has been dangerous and 2) the lack of inclusivity in the processes that have shaped global tiger conservation efforts.
A hyperfocus on tiger populations numbers
In 2016, WWF declared success because of ‘rising’ tiger populations in India, Russia, Bhutan, and Nepal. The announcement gave the perception that their work had led to the successful conservation outcome, and such updates are marketing and fundraising strategies employed by many donor-supported organizations. However, tigers are political populations because the influence of the public and government on funding and work priorities, which make it difficult to assess the accuracy of reported tiger population numbers. This is particularly true when population assessments are lead by the same governments and Big International Non-Governmental Organizations (BINGOs), like WWF, who created the initial vision and have a large stake in portraying and maintaining a story with a happy ending. A focus on tiger population numbers alone, as opposed to range expansions and contractions, can be dangerous to tiger populations when real threats are ignored for the sake of image. The obsession with numbers has also created dangerous situations for people living with tigers, and the conservation community has an ongoing obligation to genuinely engage with and invest in the local communities that we put in such danger.
WWF’s 2016 claims about population increases were refuted shortly after by leading scientists from the Wildlife Conservation Society and Panthera. Although the most current data indicates that countries like India and Nepal have truly seen increases in tiger populations, WWF and other BINGOs alone do not deserve the credit. Though BINGOs may have the biggest public voice because of their political influence and large administrative teams, it is past the time to uplift and recognize that local experts and stakeholders shape success. Many BINGOs contract their work to nationally or regionally-led organizations, who do the labor and have limited input on the global stage yet posses the most valuable scientific and traditional knowledge.
Whose voices will and will not be heard at the second Global Tiger Summit
Six BINGOs published a shared vision earlier this year titled “Securing a viable future for the tiger.” Who was apart, and who was not apart, of creating this new ‘shared vision?’ It is not clear whether there was any attempt to engage with on-the-ground staff, Indigenous or local people, or researchers and other individuals outside such BINGOs, where leadership is dominated by people from countries outside the tiger’s range and away from ground realities. In addition, such BINGOs can be diplomatically limited because of their reliance on maintaining relationships with governments, some of which are corrupt and whose actions are antithetical to conserving tigers in the wild. For example, earlier this year National Geographic published a piece on tiger poaching in Russia, where “some customs officers take small payments, of $50 or $60, for each shipment of tiger contraband.” I doubt such illegal activities undertaken by Russian government officials will be addressed by BINGO representatives during this year’s Global Tiger Summit in Vladivostock, Russia.
Yesterday, I attended WWF’s second International Tiger Youth Summit 2022. Two youth representatives presented youth recommendations for the future of tiger conservation. Efforts to include youth voices from tiger range countries into policy need to continue and WWF is the only BINGO I see making such an effort. However, there is a lack of transparency about how the youth delegates were selected. It is unclear whether it was youth who drafted the document or chose the language, or whether these recommendations will be presented at the Global Tiger Summit. Most of the time of youth summit was dedicated to adults talking to the delegates and speaking to the importance of the youth’s knowledge and commitment. Was the second International Tiger Youth Summit a volunteer recruitment event and marketing tool? Or, was this a real attempt at including youth voices in the future of tiger conservation?
This is not meant to be a criticism of the dedicated individuals working at WFF and other BINGOs, which can and have done critical work for global wildlife conservation. It’s important to recognize and talk more openly about the shortcomings of the last Global Tiger Summit, so this one might be different. This year, I’m hoping for an inclusive vision but predicting the status quo.
Authored by: Sarika Khanwilkar.
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Devin Thorpe (who has interviewed people like Bill Gates!) invited Sarika on his podcast, Superpowers for Good: leadership lessons from - and for - the world's great changemakers. Listen anywhere you get your podcasts or at this link.
Watch "Diving deep into the wildlife trade" by Wild Tiger's Sarika Khanwilkar in conversation with Adv. Mridula Vijairaghavan, an environmental lawyer. The two discuss global tiger trafficking and connections between what is happening in the United States and India. Thanks to Orange City Literature Festival, Raisoni Group, and SGR Knowledge Foundation for the invitation.
We led a campaign on Instagram, reaching more than 50,000 people around the world with the help of our collaborators including Sanctuary Asia, Jackson Wild, and the Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology Department. Sarika worked with Pooja Gupta, a scientific illustrator and communicator, to develop the campaign. Check out the graphics below.
Wild Tiger's Sarika Khanwilkar co-authored a policy commentary published in Mongabay. Read the article here.
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There was an error in a press release communicated via email to announce Wild Tiger's latest scientific publication. Sarika Khanwilkar is not a National Geographic Explorer as stated in the press release. Sarika co-wrote and worked on a successful grant in 2019 along with 2 colleagues and, more recently co-wrote, along with 4 others, a successfully funded Meridien grant. These grants were submitted as apart of Project Dhvani work.
Bi-monthly updates from the Wild Tiger team with occasional guest blog posts and personal field updates from Sarika Khanwilkar.