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By Tan Cheng Li
The Star 2 Jan 07
Saving the Malayan tiger
Stories by Tan Cheng Li
Thanks to alert from Loretta Ann Soosayraj
The Malayan tiger is in a perilous but not hopeless state. The endangered species needs ample land, food and protection to flourish.
THE Malayan tiger was given “totally protected” status in 1976 – it could be hunted as a game species prior to that. But 30 years later, it remains in a perilous state.
Although the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (Perhilitan) insists that tiger numbers, around 500, are not dwindling and still form a viable population, threats have not really eased.
Plantations and chainsaws eat away at wild habitats, poachers carry on their slaughter to feed the demand for tiger meat and parts, and we continue putting “rogue” tigers into cages.
If the Malayan tiger is to survive in the wild and avert a fate such as that of the Sumatran rhinos, whose numbers teeter at fewer than 100, they need help.
Answering the call is a group of government officials, wildlife managers, scientists and conservationists, who recently huddled together for three days at Perhilitan’s Biodiversity Centre in Lanchang, Pahang, to map out our most comprehensive tiger conservation plan – well, most comprehensive because all we had in the past were piecemeal schemes.
A key point that emerged from the meeting is that all is not lost for the Panthera tigris jacksoni. It may be in a perilous, but not hopeless, state. With improved methods to gauge tiger numbers, a more positive picture has emerged, says wildlife biologist Dr Melvin Gumal.
“In the 1990s, we portrayed tigers as being in crisis. But as we get more information, we find that there is potential to say ‘tigers forever’”.
But that hinges on providing them ample land and food, and protection from poachers and farmers.
So the workshop ended with a draft plan that centres around these strategies: monitor and protect existing tiger populations in key areas; link up fragmented tiger habitats through forested corridors; eliminate or reduce threats; and minimise the loss of tigers at forest edges due to man-animal clashes.
Tiger biologist Dr Kae Kawanishi, whose work in Taman Negara since 1998 revealed a population of 50 to 80 big cats there, is convinced that Malaysia is one country where tigers will survive. Based on available forest habitat and prey species, she says Peninsular Malaysia can harbour some 1,500 tigers.
“The proposed action plan should promote the continued existence of wild landscapes with abundant prey and core protected zones, connected by areas of tiger-friendly rural development and forestry practice,” says Kawanishi.
Because the Malaysian rainforest lacks abundant prey such as the herds of deer seen in the grassy plains of India and Nepal, its tiger densities tend to be low, at one to three animals for every 100sqkm. So to support viable tiger populations, our wild reserves need to be large. And when we protect tigers, we shield all other wildlife.
Kawanishi singles out three “tiger conservation landscapes” or TCL, which are sites big enough and have the best chance of sustaining the species: the Main Range, Greater Taman Negara and the Southern Forest Complex.
Other forested areas such as state-owned forests, timber concessions, scrubland, riverine forest and agricultural plots, should not be omitted from the tiger protection plan since they too harbour tigers and other wildlife.
To safeguard tigers found outside protected reserves and wildlife sanctuaries, wildlife managers plan to rely on the National Physical Plan (NPP), as it will create the Central Forest Spine, a tract of forest traversing the length of the peninsula. Its function is to link isolated forests with sheltered reserves to form a larger green haven that will ultimately safeguard water catchments and biodiversity.
Although deemed a useful conservation tool, the NPP, however, has yet to prove its worth partly due to poor implementation.
It may be a statutory document which must be complied with but state governments have ignored it. For instance, Perak is logging the Temenggor forest reserve, which the NPP listed as an “environmentally sensitive area”.
Furthermore, the document lacks specifics. So, where to place the forested corridors will entail more studies. Also, many forests have been earmarked for logging and development, thus hampering the Central Forest Spine plan.
Keeping tigers at bay
When plantations and livestock farms march right up to tiger country, attacks on humans and livestock – scientists call these “human-tiger conflict” – become inevitable.
Three known conflict hotspots are Hulu Perak-Sungai Siput, Jeli-Kuala Krai-Gua Musang and Dungun-Kelantan. In cases of human fatalities, wildlife rangers have had to shoot the animal. Trapped tigers, meanwhile, end up in Malacca Zoo or Taiping Zoo, where they will forever remain captive.
To mitigate such conflicts, Perhilitan and World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) have worked with villagers in Jeli, Kelantan, and Jerangau Barat, Terengganu, relying on measures as simple as confining livestock in pens at night and keeping estates weed-free so that tigers have no hiding place.
But many villages in conflict sites have not benefited from such attention as the projects depend on available funds.
In the long term, keeping plantations away from tiger territories as well as keeping a sizeable buffer between plantations and forests, seem the logical and easiest solutions – but this wise approach to landuse planning remains elusive.
Stressing the importance of buffers, Kelantan Perhilitan director Pazil Abdul Patah says such a zone will help prevent encroachment into wild areas. “Logging roads, for instance, often give easier access for poachers,” he says.
Often overlooked is the role of prey species in tiger conservation. Tigers could be venturing into plantations for their meals simply because the forest could no longer feed them.
Their usual prey, the sambar deer and wild boars, could have been overhunted. This may be the case in Jeli, which saw 45 cases of tiger attacks between 1999 and 2004. Camera trapping work by WWF never captured any photos of deer although they are among the more common rainforest mammals.
A shrinking prey base may pose an even greater threat to tigers than loss of habitat and poaching. If tigers cannot feed themselves and their cubs, their numbers will surely plunge.
Some studies have suggested that the loss of prey was what decimated the Bali, Caspian and Javan tigers. If indeed the same threat looms over the Malayan tiger, Perhilitan will have to consider ending legal game hunting.
Halt the trade
With the South China tiger population almost decimated, poachers now target Malayan tigers to meet China’s unabated appetite for tiger meat and parts.
Laws exist but the illegal trade will stop only when we muster the will to enforce them. In a survey of 99 traditional medicine shops in the country in 2004, Traffic, a group that monitors the international wildlife trade, found over half offering products purporting to contain parts of protected wildlife, including the tiger’s.
“Many of these actually contain fake tiger products but they are fuelling demand for the real thing,” says Traffic programme officer Chris Shepherd.
Last year, Traffic found restaurants throughout the country serving wild meat, including tiger meat.
Shepherd’s investigations in Laos reveal Malaysia to be a major source of wildlife. Dealers there claim to get supplies of pangolins, freshwater turtles, snakes, long-tailed macaques and tiger meat and parts from Malaysia. Indeed, foreign poachers have been hard at work in our forests and parks.
“We have found camps stocked with boxes of food and medical supplies. So you can imagine how long the poachers intend to stay in the forest,” says Perhilitan law and enforcement director Misliah Mohamad Basir.
Countering criticisms of poor policing by Perhilitan, she says scanty information has hampered enforcement work. But with the help of the Army, Perhilitan has nabbed 75 poachers (all Thais except for five Cambodians) since 2002. Of the 3,612 violations of the Wildlife Protection Act 1972 between 2001 and 2005, only eight related to tigers.
It is believed that most poaching goes undetected. Last June, Thai Police in Bangkok confiscated illegal wildlife parts, including the remains of six tigers, from the cargo of a Thai Airways flight from the Thai-Malaysian border town of Haadyai.
Could the animals be ours? Misliah says no information could be obtained from Thai authorities.
Plan in action
Because of the multi-faceted threats, tiger survival lies not only within wildlife conservation agencies.
Shepherd echoes a common view when he urges for more inter-agency co-operation: “Enforcement agencies other than Perhilitan, such as the Customs, should be vigilant against wildlife smuggling and view it as priority.”
Finally, we should be ruthless when dealing with poachers and violators. “Small fines and penalties aren’t deterrent,” says Shepherd.
The proposed tiger conservation plan reinstates what many know needs to be done to stop the slaughter of the Malayan tiger. But as always, the outcome depends on what exactly is put into action.
Meanwhile, many other issues warrant attention: What do we do about tigers kept in zoos, theme parks and private menageries? Should Perhilitan issue permits for displays of tigers in shopping malls? Should we continue trapping “rogue” tigers and send them to zoos?
The future survival of the Malayan tiger hinges on us providing them with more than space, food and protection; we need to respect them as another species on earth, just like us.
How you can help
Support the conservation efforts of MNS, WWF and MYCAT.
Protect tiger habitat by opposing indiscriminate development and illegal logging of forests.
Do not buy tiger parts or products claiming to contain tiger parts or derivatives.
Do not patronise restaurants serving tiger meat or meat from illegally acquired species.
Do not support zoos, private collections or exhibitions that display illegally acquired animals.
Write to the authorities and the press opposing policy decisions that hamper tiger conservation.
Notify Perhilitan (% 03-9075 2872) if you have information on anyone selling or trapping tigers and other protected species, or trading in their parts and products.
Source: Malaysian Conservation Alliance for Tigers (MYCAT)
To learn more about tigers, go to:
Big cat haven
By Tan Cheng Li
THE latest global study on tigers pinpoint Malaysia as one of 10 sites crucial for the future survival of the big cat as the country still contains substantial tiger habitats and a viable tiger population.
Dr John Seidensticker, chairman of Save the Tiger Fund which commissioned the study, says Taman Negara and Belum forest collectively spread over 12,900sqkm, making it one of world’s largest transboundary “tiger conservation landscape” (TCL, or places with the best chance of supporting viable tiger populations into the future) and among the 20 priority TCLs.
“One reason why Malaysia still has tigers today is because it had conserved large tiger habitats such as Taman Negara,” says Seidensticker, senior scientist at Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park and one of the authors of the study.
The landmark study, Setting Priorities for Conservation and Recovery of Wild Tigers: 2005-2015 found that tigers today occupy only 7% of their historic range and use 40% less habitat than a decade ago.
The good news is that large areas of habitat remain. The study, produced by scientists at World Wildlife Fund, Wildlife Conservation Society, Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park and Save The Tiger Fund, identified 76 TCLs covering 1.1 mil sqkm, half of which can still support 100 tigers or more, thus providing excellent opportunities for recovery of wild tiger populations.
“These are areas where tigers could be saved. Such knowledge will guide future investments in tiger conservation efforts,” says Seidensticker, who recently joined a workshop to draft a Malayan tiger conservation plan.
The world’s largest tiger landscapes exist in the Russian Far East and India. South-East Asia holds promise to sustain healthy tiger populations although many areas have lost tigers over the last 10 years.
The highest densities of tigers occur wherever there are many ungulate (hoofed animal) prey. India and Nepal have a good mixture of grassland and woodland that support large numbers of deer, and which in turn, feed the tigers. Here, tiger densities may reach 16 individuals per 100sqkm.
In places that lack big grassy patches like the Russian Far East temperate forests and the Malaysian rainforest, prey densities are low and tigers must cover huge areas to feed. Thus these areas can only support around one to three tigers per 100sqkm.
Meanwhile, proposals for farming of tigers for trade have drew objections from tiger conservationists, who argue that captive breeding will not eliminate, but encourage, poaching.
“Experience has shown that parts from wild animals are preferred and therefore, yield premium pricing that motivates poachers and smugglers,” says a statement from Save the Tiger Fund.
It is also impossible to release bred tigers into the wild, as has been done with other species, because tigers fed by humans are inclined to continue seeking food from humans.
“True tiger conservation requires saving not just tigers, but the complex web of plant and animal life in the tiger’s habitats. Production farming for tigers would be a step backward in wildlife conservation.”
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