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The latest Tiger Summit is going to begin in St Petersburg on the 21st of November. This has been heralded as yet another last ditch attempt to prevent the extinction of tigers in the wild. There may be no animal that has received more conservation attention than the tiger, for little actual gain.

The thing about tigers is that there are lots of meetings held regularly and lots of plans get formulated. In India, Indira Gandhi backed an ambitious recovery program called project Tiger back in the 1970s. That was a system of national reserves backed by rangers, all with the focus on sustaining tiger populations. Nonetheless, since the mid 1980s, global tiger populations have shrunk almost unabated. The twin pressures of habitat loss and poaching have been challenging to overcome. Like so challenging, we haven’t overcome them.

There’s probably be a lot of issues this meeting is going to bring up. A lot of these issues won’t be new. While there’s a lot of agreement about the drivers behind the loss of tigers, it’s been much harder to get agreement on any solutions.

One of the differences with this summit has been the continued involved of the World Bank and its Global Tiger Initiative in 2009. This gave some cause for optimism in the conservation community as it offered the hope that funding restraints would be loosened.  Nonetheless, thus did not mean that suddenly tiger conservation projects were being given a blank cheque. And the IUCN was pulled out of the Nepal meeting last year over differences in the ‘management style’ of the World Bank.  For me, that meant being unable to chair one of the sessions on the demand and supply of tiger parts.

So, what are we going to hear out of this summit?

Well, doubtlessly some NGOs are going to insist that poaching and smuggling can be controlled through better law enforcement. Despite the great difficulty we have with infiltrating poaching rings (often because they are based on ethnic and family associations, making outsiders very identifable), this remains a very dangerous assertion.

Tiger poaching and smuggling is near impossible to control through law enforcement. The reasons are:

1) Habitat- tigers and their poachers have ‘cryptic’  lifestyles in rugged terrain. Poachers are rarely caught and it can take years to identify them. They come from hunting cultures that are familiar with the terrain and habitat.

2) Tiger parts are traded in both domestic and international markets. An increased focus on the international side for instance, doesn’t address the domestic side. The Sumatran tiger for instance, is pretty much thratened by local poaching, not international.

3) Tigers are an infrequently smuggled good. There’s about 300 tigers a year (we think) that get poached. The parts get traded all over Asia. It’s not like the cocaine route from Colombia into Florida. There’s not a plane or boat arriving on a regular basis.  Tiger parts are moved infrequently and via many different routes. This makes the whole intelligence gathering to block them much harder.

4) We have appalling intelligence on the participants in the black market. This was brought home again this year at the CITES meeting.  Despite the palpable threat from poaching facing tigers, Governments have gathered very little intelligence on the organisations that poach and smuggle tiger parts.

5) The borders are very big. China’s southern border stretches from Vietnam to Pakistan. Some of Asia’s busiest ports are now in China.  International borders in Asia are crossed regularly by smugglers and poachers. It’s just too big. The USA can’t stop drugs and people moving across the border from Mexico and that border is a fraction of the size of these Asian borders.

So long as we think poaching and smuggling is a problem that can be fixed with better law enforcement, we ignore actually trying to understand these black markets and where they are truly vulnerable.  And it is a policy call that shuts down discussion of other options. This doesn’t serve tiger conservation at all.