Wildlife experts and government officials from India and the United States met at India's famed Ranthambore tiger reserve in early November to discuss ways to counter the factors driving one of the world's most iconic animals toward extinction.
Poaching and shrinking habitat are chief causes of tiger losses. Figures published by the Wildlife Institute of India indicate that the Indian tiger population is dwindling rapidly. There are possibly as few as 1,300, down from an estimated 3,600 five years ago.
"It's something that the Indian government and our government are very dedicated to trying to solve, but in a way we are working against a ticking time clock here. With the numbers of tigers that are left in the wild, it is something that we really have to get a solution for very quickly," said Assistant Secretary of State Claudia McMurray, who attended the three-day workshop at Ranthambore. She urged participants to act before it is too late.
Poverty and affluence are intersecting root causes. The demand for tiger parts comes chiefly from manufacturers of traditional Chinese medicines, for which wild tiger parts are prized ingredients. Tiger skins are increasingly popular in Tibet, where they are worn as status symbols. Growing Chinese affluence has resulted in greater demand.
Impoverished poachers in tiger ranges rely on killing tigers for a living. Human population growth in range states and resulting habitat encroachment is another contributing factor.
The workshop, sponsored by the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, was an initiative of Ambassador David C. Mulford. Visits to the historically significant park awakened his interest in tiger conservation.
After reviewing information about Ranthambore poaching rings, he saw a possible solution. "The men understand that they are poaching on a declining population and their future is not at all bright if that population disappears," he said while in Washington recently.
With his strong business background, he thought of enlisting the local community, including poachers, in a joint venture that would offer education and jobs: "[T] he people who do the poaching become the protectors because they see that [the tiger] is a disappearing asset, and they have got another set of incentives and a bigger stake that gets them into the future that they would like to see, so they are not dependent on poaching."
There is already a solid tourist infrastructure at the park which could be a foundation for improved community facilities. "I'm attracted by projects that look as if they might be doable," he said.
Mulford believes "if there was a comprehensive approach that was defined, presentable, and implementable, there would be significant sources of private money in the United States that would support that." He added that if a viable vision is developed for wildlife, people and habitat, "I think you can make significant progress here."
The workshop was meant to assemble key people to discuss a multifaceted program that could effectively address Ranthambore's issues.
Consul General Peter Kaestner, who attended the workshop, said of participants, "They are often on opposing sides of political debates." There were "energetic" discussions among the group of governmental and nongovernmental representatives, which he said was a good starting point.
"Really the only way we are going to make progress, is for people to put away their parochial differences and to focus on the one thing that unifies us all ... the welfare of the animals themselves," Kaestner said.
The last two days of the workshop were devoted to training forest guards in forensic techniques and other enforcement skills.
The workshop underlined continuing U.S. commitment to wildlife conservation and came after the United States' strong stance at the 14th Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species Conference of the Parties (CITES-CoP) against Chinese tiger farming.
"It was a pivotal decision for tigers," said Judy Mills, director of the Campaign Against Tiger Trafficking (CATT). "The 171 parties agreed by consensus that tigers should not be bred in captivity for sale of their parts and derivatives." A farmed tiger costs more than a wild one, and the latter is more coveted for medicinal purposes. Conservation experts think farming will accelerate the extinction of tigers in the wild.
"It is now a formal decision thanks in a large part to the leadership of the United States," she said, adding this leadership goes back to the 1990s, when China first declared a ban on tiger product sales.
Chinese traditional medicine practitioners at CITES testified in favor of maintaining the ban on domestic sale of tiger products, and have embraced alternatives, Mills said, adding that conservationists hope that China will make the ban permanent.
The United States has partnered with India on wildlife conservation issues for decades, most recently to establish forensic wildlife laboratories where trafficked animal parts may be identified and traced, and poachers apprehended.