WASHINGTON (AFP) — The World Bank launched Monday a joint project with conservation groups and Hollywood to help reverse the dramatic decline of wild tigers in Asia, in what is seen as the single most important act to save the Big Cat.
The Tiger Conservation Initiative will begin by consulting with countries that have tiger populations to assess financing needs for conservation, identify funding sources and mobilize resources to protect the animals, officials said.
"Just as with many of the other challenges of sustainability -- such as climate change, pandemic disease or poverty -- the crisis facing tigers overwhelms local capabilities and transcends national boundaries," World Bank President Robert Zoellick said at the launching at the National Zoo in Washington.
"This is a problem that cannot be handled by individual nations alone. It requires an alliance of strong local commitment backed by deep international support," he said at the event held in sweltering heat alongside the zoo's enclosure of Sumatran tigers.
Even before the launching, the Washington-based bank initiative came under fire from wary tiger conservationists in India, which houses the largest number of wild tigers.
They slammed the bank for backing projects such as highways and forestry plantations in India that had harmed wildlife.
To show that the bank was sensitive to the demands of such groups, Zoellick said Monday that the bank's "first" step in the tiger conservation drive was to review its own internal policy.
"First, we at the bank are going to initiate a review to our own independent evaluation group of our projects in tiger habitats to learn from the lessons of the past for our future engagement," he said.
Actor Harrison Ford, fresh off the success of his latest movie "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," and actress Bo Derek were at the event to put their celebrity status behind the tiger initiative.
"Acting together, we can put fangs in tiger security and commit the resources necessary to save wild tigers," said John Seidensticker, a world renowned tiger conservation biologist and head of the Smithsonian's National Zoo center for conservation ecology.
John Berry, the zoo's director, described the World Bank-led initiative as "the single most important act for tiger conservation in history."
Tiger poaching and trafficking is at an all-time high amid exploding economic growth in Asia.
Tiger numbers have declined from more than 100,000 a century ago to around 4,000 today, driven by loss of prey and habitat due to uncontrolled development and poaching for the black market trade in tiger skins and bones.
"The decline in the numbers of tigers is shocking," Zoellick said, adding that because of poaching, tigers in many supposedly "secure" reserves across Asia had simply been wiped out.
"Tigers are disappearing from Central Asia, and from East and South Asia," he said.
The International Tiger Coalition (ITC), comprised of 39 member groups aiming to stop trade in tiger parts and products, asked the World Bank to have "open and frank" dialogue with countries on tiger conservation.
"This process is crucial in avoiding further damage to tigers brought by poorly planned development projects," said Grace Ge Gabriel, the ITC spokeswoman. "Nothing short of global action will bring back wild tigers."
The World Bank is planning to host a "Year of the tiger" summit in 2010 to provide a forum for those involved in tiger conservation to review the status of the wild tigers and their habitant.
It will be a "opportunity to hold our feet to the fire," Zoellick said.
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