Face to Face: Keshav Varma, World Bank’s Programme Director for the Global Tiger Initiative

‘No compromise on trade and traffic of animal parts’

Akash Bisht Delhi 

Keshav Varma is the World Bank’s Programme Director for the Global Tiger Initiative (GTI), an innovative alliance and partnership platform of governments, international agencies, civil society and the private sector to save wild tigers from extinction. His career spans 30 years, as a civil servant and senior World Bank official, focusing on complex urban policy issues (including urban development issues in India), reconstruction programmes, climate change, and conservation to enhance sustainability of infrastructure growth.

In 2008, he conceived and mobilised a broad coalition of partners for the Global Tiger Initiative, which quickly became a special programme, with the direct oversight and leadership of Robert Zoellick, President of the World Bank Group. Varma directed the international process that resulted, in November 2010, in the historic St Petersburg Tiger Summit of heads of government, hosted by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and chaired by Zoellick. Since then, Varma manages the efforts to support implementation of the Global Tiger Recovery Programme adopted at the summit. Excerpts from an exclusive interview to Hardnews.


 How did the World Bank conceive the idea of setting up the Global Tiger Initiative?

There has been a good record of investment in bio-diversity in the World Bank for over two decades. The issue of tigers came up, particularly with the realisation that the tiger is an iconic species and it is the face of bio-diversity. The issues surrounding tigers are making the world realise the challenges to bio-diversity. So if we engage with the tiger, we are not engaging with a single iconic species, but with several other species and also forests. This feeling was shared by the then president of the World Bank, Robert Zoellick, who was a passionate champion of wildlife. It was because of his intervention and passion that we could approach and engage with political heads of state in Russia, China and India. We launched GTI in 2008 and our guiding principle was that these countries should lead it. This was our greatest contribution — creating a platform for everyone to get together.

We held our first summit in 2010 in St Petersburg, Russia. Under the leadership of Mr Putin and Mr Zoellick, five prime ministers attended, as well as several ministers from the donor countries. It was the first time that so much attention was being paid to a single species. The summit then came out with the St Petersburg Declaration and endorsed the Global Tiger Recovery Programme, an integrated plan of action for all the 13 tiger range countries. Under this programme, the tiger range countries have pledged to double the number of tigers by 2022. The summit helped everybody come together on habitat management, illegal trade and trafficking, capacity building, resources, scientific monitoring, among other aspects.


What has been the contribution of your partners?

With the efforts of our partners we have been able to train more than 800 park directors and core staff on conservation and other extraneous issues. More partners came together and it led to the creation of EQUIP. Later, the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime (ICCWC), which brings together Interpol, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the World Custom Organisation, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and the World Bank under a single umbrella, came into existence. The problem with bio-diversity is that the people have acted with passion and determination but there have been fragmented, disparate attempts. These organisations thought of coming together on illegal trafficking under one umbrella and the World Bank played the role of creating that umbrella. We tried to change the conversation about conservation. 

And how do you do that?

Traditionally, the history of conservation has been about the fight for the protected area. Also, conservationists tend to talk only to conservationists and they hardly invite any outsiders. When I became director of urban development and infrastructure in the World Bank, I thought that these areas have been under threat from outside. One has to understand that there is $800-900 billion of infrastructure annually taking place in Asian countries. They need infrastructure for growth and competitiveness. In our training programmes and conferences, we started bringing in people from finance ministries, industry, hydro and we came out with a concept of Smart Green Infrastructure. It deals with how infrastructure in sensitive areas can be designed so that it does not adversely impact the eco system. The benefit of this has been the launch of the Indian Wildlife Business Council that has brought industry into conservation. Business houses need to understand how to preserve while doing their own thing. The first meeting of the Indian Wildlife Business Council was held in Singapore with Mr Zoellick chairing it. 

What were their interests?

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: OCTOBER 2012