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Friday, November 25, 2011

Not enough to invest in protecting tiger, but invest in local communities: Richard Branson

The day the United Nations announced that the seven billionth person entered the world, I had made my way to Jim Corbett National Park to learn more about the situation facing India's wild tigers. As the global population grows, we face an unprecedented challenge of maintaining balance in our ecosystems and protecting our limited natural resources while sustaining humanity itself. With a seventh of the world's human population, India is at the nexus of this challenge. I came to the subcontinent with a group of entrepreneurs together with conservation organisation WildAid and Virgin Unite, the non-profit foundation of the Virgin Group. We experienced the contrasts of India from the sophistication and glamour of the Formula One Grand Prix to unaffected rural life, from bustling cities of millions with constantly honking horns to the tranquility and alarming beauty of Corbett National Park with serene bird calls and the hum of insects. While India's economic tiger continues to grow unabated despite severe global setbacks, India's wild tiger population is perilously low in number estimated at around 1,600 - and they face threats from deforestation, habitat encroachment, mining and poaching. These threats are not new. But with tremendous development pressure, few around the world have been able to find room for so powerful a neighbour. My friends at WildAid were fortunate enough to meet President Pratibha Patil during this trip, who confirmed her support and commitment to preserving India's icon. The National Tiger Conservation Authority has also increased resources to coordinate and boost efforts, but key responsibility lies with the states. In Panna and Sariska parks, tigers are being reintroduced and are starting to come back. But perhaps most important of all is the tolerance and understanding of the local communities that surround tiger reserves. Contrary to popular belief, human development and conservation are not at odds. Wildlife conservation has been a long-standing passion of mine, and I've had the fortune of spending time in South Africa near Krueger Park as well as many other special places in the world. Near Krueger, we have taken steps to support the wildlife as well as help sustain local communities with economic and health services. We've also partnered wonderful frontline organisations like Peace Parks to create national reserves across borders and with the Ocean Elders to protect ocean habitats and biodiversity globally. Virgin Unite and I have also joined Wild-Aid in their work, which has leveraged iconic Indian personalities such as Sachin Tendulkar, Shahrukh Khan and Amitabh Bachchan to raise awareness about conservation. Because the trade in tiger parts is international, we are also working with WildAid beyond India's borders to appeal for an end to all trade in these majestic animals. The Chinese government has also come on board, donating millions of dollars of media space to get that message across. But even that's not enough. Saving the tiger is not just about raising awareness. To save the tiger, you must invest in the surrounding community. And this is where business has a key role to play. By mobilising resources to protect the tigers' migration corridors and supporting the health, education and even the electricity of the surrounding communities so they can lift themselves out of poverty, conservation can be good - not only for the soul - but also for business. If we can harness even a tiny proportion of the entrepreneurial drive that has continued to create tremendous economic growth here in India to conserve nature and the tiger, India will keep its wonderful natural heritage, lead the world in conservation and remain a force for good amidst positive economic growth. I came to India for the chance to catch a glimpse of my favourite animal for the first time in the wild.