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The GTF has been entirely dominated by India. With foreign members and other invitees watching bemusedly, Indians have hogged international attention generated by the tiger’s plight. Photo: AP
The GTF has been entirely dominated by India. With foreign members and other invitees watching bemusedly, Indians have hogged international attention generated by the tiger’s plight. Photo: AP

The need for tiger diplomacy

With some smart 'tiger diplomacy', Narendra Modi can make a lasting impression on millions of Asians who revere the iconic cat

Another glitzy, ministerial-level tiger conference starts in Delhi’s Vigyan Bhavan on 12 April. It is being lavishly hosted by the ministry of environment, forests and climate change (MOEFCC).

The summit is designed to shine the spotlight on that grandly titled, but functionally challenged, Global Tiger Forum (GTF). Aside from the self-congratulatory speeches and merry-making that characterize such tiger summitry, can the meeting lead to anything useful?

The inaugural session offers Prime Minister Narendra Modi a great opportunity to court Asian tigers of strategic importance: Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Lao PDR and Russia. These countries, which have 564,000 sq.km, or nearly half of the world’s tiger habitat, have refused to join GTF for the last two decades.

The idea of establishing a multi-national, expertise-driven international tiger forum was initially mooted by Indian tiger conservationist Valmik Thapar in 1993. It was quickly adopted and aggressively promoted by the then minister for environment Kamal Nath, who became its first chairman. Soon a clutch of south Asian countries linked to India through history, trade and aid—Bhutan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Myanmar—joined GTF. Three other countries, Cambodia, Vietnam and China, which unfortunately had lost almost all their wild tigers, also signed up.

However, in spite being repeatedly wined and dined at the GTF events, the other tiger nations have balked. Things appear to have reached such a pass that the MOEFCC is rumored to be considering shelling out Indian tax dollars to entice them to join.

It is not hard to figure out why these countries are wary. The GTF has been entirely dominated by India. With foreign members and other invitees watching bemusedly, Indians have hogged international attention generated by the tiger’s plight.

Rules of GTF have been conveniently twisted to maintain this Indian stranglehold. Although the titular leadership of GTF has rotated among ministers of member nations, as originally envisaged, Indian officials have never relaxed their grip on the management. Retired or serving Indian officials have occupied the secretary general’s chair continuously for 22 years, blatantly violating the spirit of any truly international forum.

The GTF headquarters, envisioned to rotate among member states, remains ensconced in a plush office a stone’s throw away from the environment ministry. The forum refused to heed an eminently sensible suggestion by both the World Bank and the Global Environmental Facility (GEF) to relocate to South-East Asia and broaden its international acceptability.

Modi has the opportunity to change that.

Even Modi’s harshest critics concede that through sheer energy and perseverance, he has made a significant international impression in domains as diverse as industry, commerce and promotion of Indian culture. With characteristic common sense, he appears to appreciate the need for India to be seen as a helpful brother than a bully in the neighbourhood.

The tiger is the most popular animal in the world. With some smart “tiger diplomacy", Modi can make a lasting impression on millions of Asians who revere the iconic cat, for its deep cultural symbolism. As a first step in this direction, the Indian prime minister can breathe new life into the comatose GTF by freeing it from the chokehold of Indian bureaucracy. Another positive step could be to relocate GTF to South-East Asia. Such bold interventions may even entice hitherto reluctant tiger nations to join GTF, turning it into the truly international body it was meant to be.

If Modi cannot revive GTF, he should at least mercifully switch off its life support system: the steady trickle of Indian tax dollars.

K. Ullas Karanth is director for science-Asia, The Wildlife Conservation Society.

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