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Unleashing the Power of Wildlife Conservation Bonds

Collaboration could pave way for a groundbreaking Tiger Bond

Watching Malaysia’s Last Tigers, I felt sickened by a scene showing one of these majestic creatures hobbling on three limbs after it had to bite off one of them to escape from traps set by poachers.

The filmmaking team of Lara Ariffin and Harun Rahman behind this documentary founded RIMAU in 2018 to save the Malayan tiger (Panthera Tigris Jacksoni) and its habitat. The number of Malayan tigers has dropped precipitously from over 3,000 in the 1950s to fewer than 200 currently. Without significant protection, this species, found only in Peninsular Malaysia, will face extinction.

Lara, who also serves as the President of RIMAU, believes we only have a small window left to save the Malayan tiger. “You may think that the tiger is just an icon, but it holds far greater significance. By protecting tigers as an umbrella species, we are also protecting numerous other species that make up the ecological community of our rainforest habitat.”

Logging encroaching on Malay forest

Peninsula Malaysia has lost more than 55% of its natural forest

While various local foundations support the conservation of the Malayan tiger, securing long-term funding, crucial for the sustained recovery of tiger populations, is much harder. “Ensuring the continuity of our work poses a significant challenge,” adds Lara. “As a smaller organization, we also have fewer opportunities to seek funding from outside Malaysia.”

Enter the Wildlife Conservation Bond (WCB), an innovative, outcome-based bond pioneered by the World Bank in 2023 to mobilize private capital to finance black rhino conservation activities at two protected national parks in South Africa. Investors in this $150 million, five-year WCB, nicknamed the Rhino Bond, do not receive coupon payments from the bond. Instead, the forgone coupon payments are used to finance rhino conservation activities at those two parks.

While various local foundations support the conservation of the Malayan tiger, securing long-term funding, crucial for the sustained recovery of tiger populations, is much harder.

If the conservation is successful, as measured by the rhino growth rate independently calculated by Conservation Alpha and verified by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), investors will receive a success payment at maturity, provided by a performance-based grant from the Global Environmental Facility (GEF), in addition to principal redemption of the bond. This new approach in conservation financing passes project risks to capital market investors and allows donors to pay for conservation outcomes.

Lara Ariffin and Harun Rahman in boat

Lara Ariffin (front) and Harun Rahman – the producer and director of Malaysia’s Last Tigers

Lara agrees that a similarly structured Tiger Bond would be ideal to provide the much-needed long-term funding required for tiger conservation. “In theory, it should be easier for tigers to repopulate since they give birth to litters of two to four cubs after gestation periods of three to four months, compared to just one calf after 15 to 16 months for the black rhino.” But first, the many steps of putting together a Tiger Bond need to be understood.

This new approach in conservation financing passes project risks to capital market investors and allows donors to pay for conservation outcomes.

Leonie Kelly, currently head of Ogier’s Global Sustainable Investment Consulting team, spent several years as head of impact investment at ZSL, where she led a three-year feasibility study through United for Wildlife, a partnership with six other wildlife charities and The Royal Foundation of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. The study considered five different rhino conservation locations in South Africa, Kenya, and Nepal and demonstrated how such financing could produce other benefits, such as protecting other species living in rhino habitats and improving the lives of people working and living in those areas.

Leonie Kelly Headshot

Leonie Kelly

Kelly’s work started in 2015 but the final bond was not issued until March 2022, by which time she had already left ZSL. “The innovation here is not only the instrument itself but the bringing together of multiple parties to collectively collaborate,” says Kelly. “Incentivizing conservation bodies, investors, bankers, and donors to come together in this manner is the true success here.” Besides conservation outcomes, this project also produces social benefits through community engagement and tourism-related job creation for South Africa’s Eastern Cape province.

Next are the issues of project accountability, reporting, and monitoring. Dr. Gopalasamy Reuben Clements, an 18-year veteran conservation scientist, and currently a Sustainable Finance Specialist with ZSL, believes that it is critical to engage an organization with a track record of recovering tiger populations for such a role. “Realistic KPIs need to be set for outcome payments. It shouldn’t be just about monitoring population growth.”

Clements previously served as the Species Manager of WWF-Malaysia’s tiger and rhino programs, and co-founded Rimba, a nonprofit to help conserve threatened species and ecosystems in Peninsular Malaysia. So, he knows the Malaysian tiger landscape well.

Another potential source of tension that needs resolving early is the use of proceeds from a Tiger Bond. Transparent discussions need to happen on how the diverted coupons will be distributed among tiger conservation stakeholders. “Those leading tiger monitoring and protection should ideally receive capacity building before implementation if they lack expertise and resources. But this will take time and money.” Despite these issues, Clements believes that it still worthwhile to invest the time and energy to put together a WCB.

Royal Belum State Park

Royal Belum State Park: core tiger habitat and home to the indigenous Jahai people

Besides WCBs, dedicated impact funds, such as the recently announced $1 billion, ten-year plan by the Tiger Conservation Coalition, represent a promising avenue for raising funds to conserve tigers and tiger landscapes. Both offer the benefits of long-term funding stability and investor engagement. But they also share common challenges related to market demand, regulatory complexity, and project accountability before they can realize their full potential as fundraising mechanisms for tiger conservation.

Artificial insemination to aid tiger reproduction.

Artificial insemination to aid tiger reproduction

Regardless of whether a Tiger Bond or a Tiger Fund is ultimately used, Clements hopes that the different stakeholders can work together. The future success of such impact investing structures turns on whether the parties involved are prepared to share information and collaborate on a larger scale, instead of working in their own silos.

Dr. Gopalasamy Reuben Clements with Bhutan Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay

Dr. Gopalasamy Reuben Clements (right) with Bhutan Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay at the recent Sustainable Financing for Tiger Landscapes Conference in Paro, Bhutan

For the sake of the Malayan tigers, the state governments, foundations, and NGOs involved must seize the opportunity for a collaborative project that harnesses these innovative ideas to bring in international investors and secure the long-term funding required to save the species from extinction.

Ming Wong, an Impact Entrepreneur Correspondent, writes to share his stories and journey in impact investing, social innovation, and strategic philanthropy. After a long career in banking and finance, Ming now advises start-ups on fundraising, business development, impact, and growth strategies. He also advises foundations and corporations on impact investing, ... Read more
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