A tiger in your bank  




The old Exxon ditty, “Put a tiger in your tank”, has been adopted by the World Bank. Reportedly prodded by its president, Robert Zoellick, the Bank will announce a new global initiative to save tigers. The ‘signature tiger event’ in Washington DC on June 9, will be co-hosted by several international conservation groups. Because such interest in wildlife conservation has been rare at the very top hitherto, there is much excitement within and outside the Bank.

Many conservation NGOs see the Bank’s tiger initiative as an opportunity to insert a preventive filter on destructive impact of the Bank’s developmental projects-dams, highways, mines-on wildlife habitats. Some hope that the Bank (and its ally, the Global Environmental Facility, GEF) can leverage China to curb its rapacious trade in tiger body parts. Others see more money in the pipeline to save tigers in the wild.

Sceptics, on the other hand, see the tiger initiative as a public relations ploy. They suspect that Bank simply wants to lend more profitably to high-growth economies of India and China, simultaneously green-washing its warty environmental visage. The World Bank has so far failed to generally acknowledge the damage it has inflicted on wild lands through its development projects. However, the institution is unlikely to wear sack-clothes and ashes in public now for it’s past sins.

Although this is a global tiger initiative, the Bank desperately needs Indian involvement to maintain credibility. For all its problems, India harbours some 1,500 wild tigers. China has only a handful left, with 5,000 more captives waiting to be butchered, although domestic trade is still banned. Consequently, there is a covert campaign to compel India to seek the Bank’s assistance to save tigers. Officials are dangling before the Indian government the World Bank’s “convening power”, “expertise in tiger conservation”, and “innovative business models” as baits.

Tiger conservationists in India-even those who do not viscerally hate the World Bank-are wary of this simultaneous courting of the Indian government and conservation NGOs. They have reasons to be worried about what happens on ground when the Bank focuses its models, hybridising conservation with development, on tigers. What I saw unfold in my study area of Nagarahole-one of India’s best tiger habitats-a decade ago provides a good example of what can happen with the Bank’s intervention. The India Ecodevelopment Project (IEDP -1997-2003), sponsored by the World Bank- GEF combine, had worthy goals: enhancing conservation capacity of reserve managers; reducing negative impacts of local communities and engendering their support for wildlife protection. These goals were to be achieved by spending Rs 360 million over five years-roughly 8 times the usual budget of the reserve. The money was to be routed through hands of reserve officials or consultants.

For the record, I argued against the project, pointing out that clever verbiage covered naked avarice built into the project. I predicted several negative consequences: massive funding would attract corrupt elements in the bureaucracy leading to a collapse of protection; the deficient protective staff would shift attention towards lucrative ‘development works’ and ‘habitat management; no credible education, monitoring or research could occur through the consultancy schemes proposed; the urgent and critical need to reduce human densities inside the park through fair voluntary relocation projects would get sidelined. Despite huge investments, the project would damage wildlife and habitats without increasing local community support.

Unfortunately, I was proved right. The problems with the project were structurally rooted. Ecodevelopment tried to hybridise conservation with development in entirely inappropriate ecological and institutional contexts. The project pumped vast sums of money through a self- serving network of forest officials, consultants or ‘civil society’ outfits that mushroomed overnight. Apprehensions of conservationists went unheeded.

K Ullas Karanth, -Down To Earth Feature