WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Hollywood celebrities Harrison Ford, Bo Derek and Robert Duvall on Monday threw their support behind a new global initiative by the World Bank to save tigers from extinction.
While the global development agency's main mission is to fight poverty in developing countries, it has rarely taken on wildlife conservation efforts of endangered species.
The new Tiger Conservation Initiative will bring together wildlife experts, scientists and governments to try to halt the killing and thriving illegal trade in tiger skins, meat and body parts used in traditional Asian medicines.
Ford, a long-time environmental activist, said efforts to protect tigers would only succeed if local communities were involved in conservation efforts.
"By committing to help wild tigers, the World Bank is sounding its intention to be a global leader in biodiversity conservation," Ford, the star of the latest "Indiana Jones" movie, told an event at Washington's Smithsonian National Zoo.
World Bank President Robert Zoellick said the decline in the number of tigers was "shocking" from over 100,000 a century ago to currently less than 4,000.
The clearing of large areas of forest land for urban development has added to their decline and disappearance from Central Asia, the Indonesian islands of Java and Bali, and most of China.
POACHING AT ALL-TIME HIGH
A World Bank report warned that "if current trends persist, tigers are likely to be the first species of large predator to vanish in historic times."
"Just as with many other challenges of sustainability, such as climate change, pandemic disease, or poverty, the crisis facing tigers overwhelms local capabilities and it is one that transcends local borders," Zoellick said.
"This is a problem that cannot be handled by individual nations alone, it requires an alliance of strong local commitment backed by deep international support," he added.
Zoellick said the World Bank would convene a series of discussions with countries, conservationists and the private sector to mobilize funding for tiger conservation, and launch studies on how better to protect the cats.
The World Bank chief said there were examples of where tigers had been brought back from the brink of extinction, such as in Russia and Nepal, but added that saving the world tiger population would not be an easy task.
"All those concerned may not agree but this does not mean we should stand on the sidelines and do nothing," he said.
John Seidensticker, chief scientist at the Smithsonian National Zoo's Conservation Ecology Center, said tiger poaching and trafficking in tiger parts and meat was at an all-time high and the biggest immediate threat to tigers.
"For wild tigers to live they must have much better security on their home ground," he said, also calling on countries to properly enforce laws to protect tigers.
This, Seidensticker said, required strong political will.
"We're at a tipping point and we're going to lose wild tigers but with the World Bank initiative wild tigers now have a chance," he added
Seidensticker said tiger conservation efforts needed to be more coordinated and focused, and the World Bank could help as a global institution.
(Reporting by Lesley Wroughton; Editing by Sandra Maler)