Leonardo DiCaprio gives Russia's tiger summit a helping hand

A five-day tiger summit aimed at conservation generated a $1 million donation from Leonardo DiCaprio. The world's remaining 3,500 tigers are at risk from poaching and loss of habitat.

Alexei Druzhinin/Ria Novosti/AP
Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (l.) listens to actor Leonardo DiCaprio during their meeting, dedicated to a five-day 'tiger summit,' in St. Petersburg, Nov. 23.

A five-day "tiger summit" held in St. Petersburg, Russia, has garnered fresh pledges of support to help an iconic species that faces extinction in the wild. The summit, hosted by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, also had a Hollywood touch: Leonardo DiCaprio arrived Tuesday, a day late, after a diverted flight, and donated $1 million to the cause, earning him praise for persistence from Mr. Putin.

The meeting, which ended Wednesday, is aimed at supporting national efforts to conserve tiger populations, estimated to be less than 3,500. The surviving tigers are at risk of poaching, loss of habitat, and genetic disorders from interbreeding. Russia is among 13 nations classified as range countries for tigers, which include the Siberian subspecies in Russia’s Far East and the more common Bengal tiger.

But wildlife groups in Southeast Asia warn that conservation efforts will fall flat unless governments tackle the rampant illegal market in tiger skins and body parts that are driving the poaching. Of particular concern are lawless border towns in Burma (Myanmar) that attract buyers from neighboring China and Thailand. Researchers say that endangered species such as tigers and clouded leopards are sold openly in shops and markets.

Of more than $100 million pledged at the St. Petersburg conference, only $9 million from the US government was earmarked specifically to combat poaching and trafficking. Activists say that much more is needed to fight highly organized criminal gangs that profit from Asia’s shrinking wildlife, part of a global trade estimated by Interpol to be worth more than $10 billion annually.

“Our main concern is that of the amount of money going into this, not much is filtering down into field-level enforcement,” says Onkuri Majumdar, senior programs officer for Freeland Foundation in Bangkok, a conservation nonprofit that works with law enforcement agencies in Southeast Asia on cross-border policing.

Burma is a particular worry because it doesn’t control all its borders and armed militia groups often turn a blind eye or profit from illegal activities, such as gambling and prostitution, in self-governed enclaves. One group, the Wa, may be prepared to stop wildlife trade in its territory on China’s southwest border, though it hasn’t acted yet, according to TRAFFIC, a nonprofit that monitors the wildlife trade.

“Wildlife has not been high on their list of priorities. Frankly, it’s easy money to move wildlife,” says William Schaedla, the Southeast Asia director for TRAFFIC.

Burma has around 85 surviving tigers, mostly found in reserves along its borders with India and Thailand. But its illicit markets are also a hub for regional wildlife smugglers who target wealthy consumers in China and Vietnam. Researchers for TRAFFIC found tiger bones, paws, penises and teeth touted as medicine or aphrodisiacs. Skins of tigers and other big cats are also popular as home décor.

Conservationists argue that until China curbs its demand for such products, the underground trade will continue to thrive. China’s premier Wen Jiabao attended the St. Petersburg summit on a state visit to Russia and said in a speech that all countries should enforce laws against poaching. China has banned the sale of tigers and tiger parts but allows tiger farms that critics say stoke demand for wild tigers.

Ms. Majumder is skeptical that the summit can fix anything, but insists that saving the species isn’t a lost cause. “Tigers are really, really resilient. Given half the chance, they’ll come back. What we really have to focus on is protecting their areas and going after poachers,” she says.

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