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

Published: October 28, 2012 - 16:41

‘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?

They want to develop an awareness process for the industry and also look at the performance indicator that could help them provide growth with sustainability. I think they are also interested in developing a framework in which there is a more structured relationship with the environment. It is a framework wherein everybody knows where they can go and where they can’t. They should also know the reasons behind it. They are also interested in green business and how they can connect with communities. 

But, considering the fact that tourism-related activities by such business houses are having an adverse impact on bio-diversity in India, how do you reconcile the two? Is the World Bank trying to raise these issues with such lobbies?

The first thing we must understand is that the natural heritage of any country is a matter of pride for its citizens. You cannot divorce the citizens from their park because that would lead to their losing interest in wildlife. And for that we need a well-regulated eco tourism industry with clear land use planning. It has to be monitored very effectively to ensure that there is no violation of the integrity and inviolability of the tiger conservation landscape. It is also important to ensure that the wilderness quality of these forests is not lost to the footprints of the humans. Also, you can’t make money out of the tiger and leave the locals completely out of it. Mozambique and South Africa are excellent examples. 

 How do you think this can be achieved?

In the US, before tourists enter a park, there is an orientation session to educate them about wildlife. The most common thing about the tourist in India is that they are only interested in tigers and will chase all possibilities to see one. They will also try to work a deal with the guides and rangers to take them to a place frequented by tigers. Now, if they understand the value of the park in a more comprehensive manner, in terms of its bio-diversity, rivers and lakes, other species, then this rush to see the tiger will go. 

Why do you say that poaching would increase if tourism activities are banned in these reserves?

The presence of tourists acts as a kind of prevention because they are always moving around and there is a lot of activity in the reserve. If the parks are closed one would never know about the movement of poachers and they could easily kill tigers. That’s why parks are exposed to poaching during the monsoon. And, if all of this shuts down, then nobody would be interested in wildlife. If you can’t see it then it is as good as extinct.

Also, poaching has now become an organised crime and there is a surge in demand for tiger parts in China, Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia. This has led to a massive spike in the prices of tiger parts and, since people are willing to pay more, the stakes have become very high. People are willing to pay $1,40,000-1,50,000 for a tiger skin. 

There has not been a single instance of a tourist providing any kind of information on poaching and only 10 per cent of the park is open to tourism activities. Additionally, it is difficult for a tourist to distinguish poachers from ordinary tribals. And, since poachers operate at night, doesn’t this contradict your statement that tourists deter poachers from entering parks?

Once the parks start to act as engines of economic growth for the community, they will understand the value of it. In these remote areas, parks have to act as engines of economic growth and then the community will understand the value of a live tiger compared to a dead tiger. The community should understand the social, cultural and economic value of these animals. 

What is the GTI or World Bank doing to put a check on this rising demand for animal parts from Southeast Asia?

This was one of the basic values with which GTI was formed. Mr Zoellick took it up with the Chinese President and with their foreign minister. We have also taken up this issue with Vietnam and other countries. The advantage of GTI is that it can engage these countries and, on issues related to demand, we are taking a very tough stand. We are conveying to countries that they have to develop very strong awareness campaigns and we are willing to help. We are not ready to compromise on this trade and traffic of animal parts. These countries have to feel the heat because they can’t destroy other countries’ natural assets.  It is just not acceptable that tigers are being wiped out from Sariska and Panna to satisfy this demand.   

Do you think that private resort owners and others profiting from tourism bodies should share their revenues for upliftment of the local communities?

They should. All eco tourism must encourage local livelihood. They can bring professionals but they must train and encourage locals. These tourist lodges should become centres of excellence for wildlife awareness and management. It is not just about running a hotel but a unit that has a tourist and awareness quotient to it. If it isn’t managed properly then it would destroy a very precious asset. There is no room for error and these eco tourist centres should also monitor their ecological imprints. These wildlife hotbeds should be treated with much more value than gold and diamond because once these species become extinct then no amount of written legislation will bring them back. Extinction is irreversible.  Also, tigers represent mature bio-diversity and wherever there are tigers they are the most valuable resource of the country. Whatever forests are left are because of tigers.   

 How do you react to this trend of conservationists turning into hoteliers and resort owners?

It is good because these guys know the intricacies of conservation. They know the importance of tigers. However, they need to exercise self-discipline. They can’t build roads wherever they like or grab land wherever they can. This has to be matched by strict enforcement on land use. In India, there has been no land use planning. 

What are GTI’s goals for the next few years?

We have very simple plans that include providing enough resources so that the basic needs of the park are met. This would mean better management and the resources to counter poaching. We also want professional management of bio-diversity, particularly wildlife management. We want to create an open park grid and we are in talks with Clemson University wherein all the database and research would be available to tiger range countries. There is a demand to replicate this model for snow leopards. We are now supporting a snow leopard initiative in Kyrgyzstan and the first summit will happen in Bishkek. The African countries are saying that they want to use this model for rhino and elephant projects. I am being asked in Japan why we don’t start this with marine mammals. In future, we are also going to look at green business, it is one of the serious corporate priorities of the World Bank. 

This story is from print issue of HardNews