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Keshav Varma on Endangered Tigers (1)

Keshav_Varma_St-300x18119 June 2014 | Interview by Craig Kasnoff

Keshav Varma is the World Bank’s Program Director for the Global Tiger Initiative (GTI), an innovative alliance and partnership platform of governments, international agencies, civil society, and the private sector united to save wild tigers from extinction.

Mr. Varma has had a 30-year career as a senior servant and senior World Bank official, focused on complex urban policy issues, reconstruction programs and recently climate change and conservation to enhance sustainability of infrastructure growth.

The first part of his career focused on urban development issues in India. Mr. Varma had an exceptional and pioneering record of achievement as the Municipal Commissioner of Ahmedabad, India, a city of over six million, where he was credited with rejuvenating the organization with a much enhanced public image, high staff morale, well-defined strategic approach, and issuing the first municipal bond and credit rating.

Based on his achievements in Ahmedabad, in 1997, he was asked to join the World Bank to lead the urban program in East Asia. In this capacity, Mr. Varma raised the Bank urban profile to a $1 billion program per year, with the project portfolio progressively expanding to over 200 large cites, from Jakarta to Manila, Shanghai, Beijing, Chongqing, Hanoi, and Ho Chi Minh City.

His portfolio also included reconstruction activities – he led the 2005 post-tsunami recovery program in Aceh, Indonesia. He also led dialogue with cities on climate change mitigation and new approaches to urban sustainability.In 2008, based on his track record, entrepreneurship, and passion for balancing the needs of conservation and development, Mr. Varma conceived and mobilized a broad coalition of partners for the Global Tiger Initiative, which quickly became a special program, with direct oversight and leadership of Mr. Robert Zoellick, President of the World Bank Group.

Mr. Varma directed the international process that resulted in November 2010 in the unique and historic St. Petersburg Tiger Summit of heads of government hosted by Prime Minister Putin and chaired by President Zoellick.

Since then, Mr. Varma manages the efforts to support implementation of the Global Tiger Recovery Program adopted by the Summit.



Keshav Varma speaking at opening of the Stocktaking Conference in New Delhi, India 2012

aTJ: How do you see the ‘big’ picture of endangered tigers? Is it getting worse? Is it under control? Out of control? How do you see it?

Keshav Varma: What I see is, we now know what the real issues are. And we know this very clearly.

One of the impressions which came from the ‘Stock Taking Conference,’ and from the last two years after St Petersburg Summit is that the status of the wild tiger varies across the 13 tiger range countries (TRCs).

I see India, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh making a combined effort. And they are showing results because of their better coordination.

Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia are coming up. Indonesia has done a tiger occupancy survey for the first time and it showed good results. Malaysia is very well organized in terms of land-use planning and its landscape-scale program in the Central Forest Spine is very exceptional and a very good model for other TRCs to emulate.

Thailand is emerging as a leader in capacity building, Russia is doing well, and China is committed to rebuilding its tiger numbers.

But I am worried about Myanmar. There is a wildlife market that sits in the Hukaung Valley landscape that is picking at wild tigers and their prey, although efforts are underway to clamp down on the market. And I am really worried about the countries in the Mekong including Viet Nam, Laos and Cambodia. Among the three, there may be no more than 20 or so tigers left even through good habitat remains. On the plus side, efforts to develop restoration plans are underway.

So generally it’s a varying situation.

There are strong efforts to increase cooperation among countries, which is good, and there is more willingness to learn from each other and to discuss things openly.

The problem for me is habitat. I am really concerned about that.Urbanization is taking place at a very fast pace in Asia. There will be almost 1.2 billion people who will be moving into cities in Asia including South Asia and East Asia. So the pressure on habitat, due to the lack of properly planned infrastructure or properly planned land use for urbanization, is a very worrisome situation. The ecological footprint of emerging and expanding cities will continue to create stress on sensitive ecosystems.

This is compounded by stimulants being offered to counter the slow-down in the economy, which are also based on largely brick and mortar infrastructure. This means the ecological impact from the number of construction areas is expanding, and if these construction areas are not based on any kind of ‘green growth’ or biodiversity–friendly principles, it is going to be a major challenge for tigers in the tiger economies.


Wild tiger at Corbett Tiger Reserve, India, April 2011

aTJ: What do you see as the ‘leading’ cause for the tigers plight? Is there one in specific?

Keshav Varma: Yes, habitat. And I feel this habitat issue is not just the fragmentation or deterioration or the loss of the integrity of the habitat, it is also the loss of wilderness which is taking place. A loss which is caused by the slow and persistent nibbling into core protected areas through local corruption, lack of regional planning and through land grab.A lot of people living in Delhi, for instance, are trying to grab land around tiger reserves because they understand the value is going up because of the increase in tourism. So they are grabbing as much land as possible without taking into consideration the wilderness value or the integrity of habitat. So that is one issue that is coming up.

The other issue is that there is no regional planning in tiger landscapes.

For example, you can have a landscape say somewhere in India like the Rajaji National Park in Uttarakhund and right next to the core area of a park there is an industrial estate with power plants, chemicals, pharmaceuticals and petro chemicals.

This means you can go to a reserve and on one side you can see a leopard during the night, and on the other side you are seeing the lights and hear the sounds of a power plant.

Parks are increasingly becoming surrounded by very contrary developments, which are becoming a noose around their neck and destroying their integrity and fragmenting the corridors.

So, there is a lot of wilderness which is very, very important which is being taken away. And I am very worried about this aspect. It is not just habitat which is being lost, but the wilderness character which is being compromised.

Training_facility_frontline_staff_at_Corbett_Tiger_Reserve_India_April_2011Training facility for frontline staff at Corbett Tiger Reserve, India, April 2011

Another important issue is poaching.

I was recently reading a book about Jim Corbett; the latest book which has come out about his writings.

He wrote in 1933 about an episode in which the local villagers around his place in Kaladhungi were baiting and shooting tigers and other wildlife at a water hole in the summer. So he went and talked to them and said “Look, you can’t do that, it is so unethical to be shooting the animals when they are come to drink water.” And they stopped it.

But this is exactly what is still happening in the forests today. The trapping and shooting of tigers is taking place around the bodies of water. And because of the way we are unable to pursue convictions, the poachers are not discouraged from doing this.
These poachers are getting contracts to shoot a number of tigers to supply illegal traders who take the tigers across the boundary.
There is a jump in demand, and Viet Nam has emerged as a major player in this.

So poachers are more active, they’re better equipped and I don’t think the countries are equipped or coordinated enough yet to fight this problem. So that is another major issue. Though I can’t say there should be shoot at site, as in Tadoba in Maharashtra, but we have to give them a taste of their own medicine by fighting fire with fire.

Unscrupulous gangs and mafia can’t be allowed to irretrievably wipe out the precious natural heritage of a country.

Keshav Varma in Corbett Tiger Reserve, April 2011

And a third issue is the lack of a true understanding of the crisis and its implication for tigers and other wildlife.

I don’t think the crisis is clearly understood by the common people or by leaders. I don’t think they know what the crisis means in terms of sustainability. I’ll give you an example.

There is a park known as Sariska near Delhi, which experienced very persistent poaching. And they discovered in 2005 that all the 25 tigers were poached out.

They tried to relocate tigers there, but the local vested interest is not allowing that to succeed because they want that park to be de-notified as a tiger reserve. Because if it gets de-notified, you will be able to do mining there.

So that is this issue which is coming up. If you have a tiger in a park it gives stature and a special legal status to the park; tiger is the face of biodiversity and an iconic indicator of the stress nature is feeling. It is saving that forest. And leaders in both government and the private sector have to understand the value of wildlife.

Not long ago I happened to sit next to a senior minister and got to talking the tiger issue, and he said to me “Keshav, I cannot believe there are only 3,200 tigers left in the wild and that the crisis is so significant.”

So I think one of the leading reasons for the plight of tigers is the lack of the understanding of the crisis, and its implications for tiger habitat and other wild places.

In Asia, we need stewardship and a leadership that is inclined and interested in their natural capital. But everybody seems to be confined to urban centers. So there is very little inspiring leadership.We have seen some examples of inspiring leadership, however. We saw one in Russia at the St. Petersburg Summit with Mr. Putin, who is truly interested in wildlife and wilderness.
But because leadership in Asia -for the most part- does not visit these areas, there is little understanding of the value of wilderness and wildlife.

And this is true with the new generation as well who are spending more time in the cities, and in front of computers, and not exploring nature.

This is a culture and value problem. Because there is a huge urban bias in thinking in Asia today.

Rural areas, rural habitats, rural landscapes, rural values in terms of forestry and wildlife, these values are not really attracting this new generation. And this is a problem, now and for the future of tigers and all wildlife.

aTJ wishes to thank Keshav Varma for being so generous with his time to do this interview with a Tiger Journal.


Keshav Varma speaking at Vietnam Tiger Day Event, July 2011

For more information about the Global Tiger Initiative go to

Find organizations saving endangered tigers at Saving Endangered Tigers.

Tigers in Crisis is Produced by Endangered Species Journalist Craig Kasnoff

to Promote the Plight of Endangered Tigers and the Efforts to Save Them.