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Keshav Varma on Endangered Tigers (2)

Keshav_Varma_Vietnam_Tiger_Day_Event_July_2011-300x19526 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.

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.



Wild Tiger at the Corbett Tiger Reserve in India 2011

aTJ:What do you think is the most promising ‘solution’ to saving tigers from extinction in the wild?

Keshav Varma: One of the major solutions is that since we launched the GTI in 2008, we have not only been able to create a platform for partnerships, but we have also been able to bring the Tiger Range Countries (TRC) to the forefront, to the leadership position. And they each now have their National Tiger Recovery Priorities.

They have worked on these for the last three years and what we took to St. Petersburg is the Global Tiger Recovery Program (GTRP) that integrates all the national tiger recovery priorities.

So I think one of the most clear-cut, well planned and coordinated solution is the actual implementation of the National Tiger Recovery Priorities and the Global Tiger Recovery Program in the respective countries. The role of the GTI is to provide the support and sense of urgency to the TRCs to continue and expand their efforts, and use its convening power to influence political will at the highest level and bring new partners into the GTI alliance.

For instance, we are working with the Confederation of Indian Industry to create an Indian Wildlife Business Council because the private sector has a major role to play in conservation, particularly in ensuring their investments in infrastructure and resource extraction don’t damage tiger conservation landscapes.

In turn, it is the TRCs’ job to prepare master plans for land-use in tiger landscapes for spatial planning and zoning, so it is clear where and what industry can do in various areas. Most of the tiger landscapes are not yet clearly defined in terms of core zones, buffer zones, and ecological corridors and in many cases buffer zones and corridors have no legal status.

This also makes it difficult to determine the extent to which these areas are being encroached on or converted to other uses.

Another extremely important goal is to ensure the GTRP is being implemented in the front-lines. Now that is a challenge again. I believe that if we are looking for one solution, it would have to be at the tiger conservation landscape level, it is critical to have a level of professional and technical excellence that would ensure that tiger parks maintain their integrity and inviolability and their true wilderness. Once the park is secured, tigers would find tranquil and safe place to breed.

This is demonstrated by the latest developments in Panna National Park in India. In 2005 the park was poached clean of tigers. Leadership and professional management has ensured the rehabilitation of the park and now they have 21 tigers in the wild there. This is taken a major team spirit, commitment and intense patrolling of habitats.

We can talk in conferences, we can do a lot of round-tables and other things, but the idea is that what we are planning goes right down to the front-lines.

And this is something we are trying to do through capacity building, training and partnership building.

Another promising solution is enhancing the management effectiveness of the tiger conservation landscapes. That is an important issue.

Most of the landscapes today are located in remote areas of the countries, and mostly on international boundaries. And here it is essential that people who are running them have the skills, not only in forest management, but in wildlife management.

That is an important differentiation and we are seeing that wildlife management must come out. And there needs to be better accountability.

And there also must be an appreciation of the good work which is being done by people in these remote areas. Because what we are finding out again, is that these guys who are the caretakers of tiger parks are very vulnerable. If one tiger gets poached, their job is on the line. It’s important they are appreciated for their innovations, their work on anti-poaching or their creative new ideas.

I think another solution is there has to be a ‘securitization’ of the landscapes and the parks by very tough and very systematic methods. For example, there is a park whose director is known as a tough guy. He has secured the park. And now there are 22 breeding females out there.

Another solution in the way TRCs are learning from each other in terms of say one country providing a model for land-use planning while another country pioneering how to re-habilitate parks that have become completely dry of tigers and sharing its expertise.

There is more learning and more coordination as a result of this platform that GTI has been able to create. And these are some things coming out of the National Tiger Range Priorities, that if they are implemented in the field, then I think the solution is very clearly there.


Endangered Sumatran Tigers at Play…photo Craig Kasnoff

aTJ:How much of the ‘front-line’ solution is based on money?

Keshav Varma: Money is important. In some TRCs, protected areas are woefully under-resourced. Staff are poorly paid and may lack vehicles, communications, and even uniforms. This makes it very difficult for rangers to patrol the entire protected area to deter poaching and encroachment.

Contributing to this, some areas lack internal forest roads or all-weather roads that can be used during monsoons—so poachers have an opportunity to work unimpeded. Some areas also lack housing for essential staff to stay inside the reserve as a deterrent.

There is also a need to supply park staff with modern technology, such as night-vision glasses, and better weapons. Poachers are very often far better equipped and armed that guards—it’s stout sticks against machine guns!

In a few places, such as India’s Corbett Tiger Reserve, there are dedicated private foundations that help and this idea needs to be marketed more widely. Another way to increase park funding is to allow a park to keep entry fees rather than this money going back to general funds; surcharges could also be applied to ecotourism facilities whose primary attraction is proximity to a park.

Another idea that may sound out of the box is measure the ecological impact of urbanization and infrastructure in landscapes and extract a percentage from urban coffers and infrastructure profits that would be devoted to conserve biodiversity.

Money is also important to provide quality training to conservation practitioners.

You have to spend money so you can get information about what is happening at parks around the world and share it.

So, there is money involved.

But there is also an issue of orientation and commitment to quality. Some parks have money but managers need to get more access to information and opportunities for gaining experience and learning from others.

And one thing we are trying to create is an ‘Open Parks Grid’ as a way for park managers to access research and scientific data in a very open manner. We are trying to create an environment of open science and better monitoring for tracking tigers, for example, and for accountable methods for staff work programs.

So it is money, quality, and orientation which need to go into this in terms of wildlife management.

aTJ:What do you think it will ‘cost’ to save tigers in the wild?

Keshav Varma: If you look at the Global Tiger Recovery Program that was endorsed in 2010, it talks about an incremental $350 million dollars for five years. It is a figure that reflects of the TRC’s National Tiger Recovery Priorities.

I think it is a significant figure. But this also has to be supplemented by incremental national resources. And I think we are trying to push for that also by advocating with the countries that they may want to increase the national budget for their forestry department.

It appears we have about $200 million dollars available by December, 2012, out of the $350 million. And I am quite sanguine that we should be able to raise the remainder in the five years that we have promised.

The partners have done a great job in this and we are also trying to raise resources though a multi-donor trust fund.

aTJ: Is the current state of the world economy impacting your efforts to raise the money needed?

Keshav Varma: Yes. The downturn is impacting donor interest a little.

image_2Endangered Malayan Tiger…photo Craig Kasnoff

aTJ: Are there any other ‘key’ issues that can be part of the ‘Solution’?

Keshav Varma: Yes. One is the whole issue of green growth and another is creating value.

The whole idea of green growth in not clearly defined. It has been tossed out as the new paradigm. But what is green growth? How does green growth help communities around the tiger reserves?

To develop a strong economic model for community-based conservation, green growth must be defined and incentivized at the micro-level. This is an area where national governments need to find solutions in cooperation with the private sector.

Another issue is recognizing that a commitment to saving wilderness and wildlife is a value statement of a society.

And this value of caring for wilderness has to be created for among young people; the youth and the young professionals. Because if these people embrace this value, they will be able to influence the political will and the political agenda because now they count. Young professionals are often in the position to do something about it.

And it’s important to give young people an orientation about wilderness, and appreciation for trees, birds, insects, and all biodiversity.

Asia is a very young place, so I would like to see more opportunities for young Asians to connect to wilderness. This could be done through young ranger programs where youth volunteer in a park for a few months a year. This could create a very special constituency among a group who can make a difference in society.

However, to be able to get this message across, and for it to cascade down to the country level and a local level, is a challenge.

NEXT WEEK PART 3: The Global Tiger Initiative (GTI) and its Mission to Save Tigers in the Wild.


Keshav Varma at Stocktaking Conference in New Delhi in May 2012

Go here for more information about the Global Tiger Initiative

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.