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PUBLISHED: Jul 6, 2014 11:00am • UPDATED: Jul 18, 2014 07:07pm

500 tigers in our jungles? Not really

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R.S KAMINI By:
R.s Kamini

Without enforcement and a dedicated task force, the country’s Malayan tiger population may be wiped out soon. The Malayan tiger population has been floating at 500 for the last 10 years and scientists believe the actual number in the wild is a lot less. — Bigstock pic

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IN the last 10 years, Malaysia has been holding on to a floating figure of 500 wild Malayan tigers, but in reality the number may be a lot less.

Sixty years ago, Malaysia had an estimated 3,000 of the sub-species in the peninsula, but poaching, deforestation and habitat degradation has caused the tiger population to dwindle.

The World Wide Fund For Nature Malaysia (WWF-Malaysia) lead research scientist for their Peninsular Malaysia Species Conservation Programme, Dr Mark Rayan Darmaraj, says the Malayan tiger — similar to the Indo-Chinese sub-species — is not only important to maintain the country’s biodiversity, but also the balance in the ecosystem.

“People don’t get the idea of why the apex predator like tigers are important.

“If apex or umbrella species are gone, there will be a cascading effect to the ecosystem,” says Dr Rayan.

“Negative effects can spill over through an imbalanced food chain, thereby causing the dynamism and stability of the ecosystem to be adversely altered.

“Protecting the umbrella species can safeguard hundreds of other species that share their habitat, thereby preserving overall biodiversity,” he says.

National tiger action plan

Malaysia came up with a 12-year National Tiger Action Plan in 2008, focusing on four important objectives to double the tiger population in the country to 1,000 by 2020.

These four objectives are: ensuring habitat connectivity in the Central Forest Spine; increasing patrol and enforcement efforts; practising ecologically sound habitat management, conflict resolution and sustainable land-use; and applying conservation science and monitoring.

“The Action Plan should be up for review next year. This is particularly needed to gauge if certain actions need to be improved and adapted,” says Dr Rayan.

The first objective — ensuring habitat connectivity in the Central Forest Spine — is meant to preserve habitats through effective and sustainable management of protected areas and maintaining the connectivity between forest patches.

In Peninsular Malaysia, there are three priority areas for tigers (several reserves make one landscape) and when they are connected, the tiger population can thrive, provided there is no poaching, habitat loss or any other disturbances.

Only 6% of the country’s land area is classified as protected areas, the rest fall under the permanent reserved forest category, which are predominantly subjected to logging.

In the northern part of the peninsula is the Belum-Temengor Complex, in the east is Taman Negara and down south is the Endau-Rompin Complex. All these places have protected areas within the forest vicinity.

With proper camera trappings and monitoring, the country can come up with a National Tiger Census with a year or two. — Pic courtesy of  Shariff Mohamad/WWF.
With proper camera trappings and monitoring, the country can come up with a National Tiger Census with a year or two. — Pic courtesy of Shariff Mohamad/WWF.

Tigers need large area

Habitat connectivity is important because tigers need a large area to breed and maintain their genetic flow.

“If we look at the social organisation of tigers, one male will mate with three or four females and it will demarcate — through urine, faeces and scrape marks — an area span of about 200 sq km to dominate. Other males will not enter its territory and the same goes for female tigers.

“Tigers are predominantly solitary and naturally patrol a large area to maintain their territories, which are also influenced by prey availability. Theoretically, the more prey you have, the smaller the home range of tigers,” says Dr Rayan.

Deforestation, habitat loss and poaching have always been the biggest threat to tigers. — Pic courtesy of Christopher Wong/WWF.
Deforestation, habitat loss and poaching have always been the biggest threat to tigers. — Pic courtesy of Christopher Wong/WWF.

Demand for tigers

The second objective (increasing patrol and enforcement efforts) is one area that lacks attention when it comes to wildlife protection.

“Poaching is the fourth largest illicit trafficking activity after drugs, counterfeit goods and human trafficking.

“Wildlife trafficking is estimated to be worth US$19 billion (RM61 billion) annually.

“It’s not that we don’t have adequate laws; we just don’t have enough boots on the ground to enforce these laws.

“Hence, the major stumbling block for dealing with this threat is the problem of insufficient resource mobilisation and funding gaps that are not included in the framework.

“Ideally these issues should be addressed when the action plan is reviewed.”

Tiger trade is a lucrative business. Most demand for tiger parts are for traditional Chinese medicine with no scientific backing on its curative powers.

They are also a status symbol. When you are not rich, you cannot afford to devour tiger meat or tiger bone wine so people take pride in being able to consume them. This mentality needs to change.

The third objective deals with proper land use that keeps a check on sustainable logging activities, land or infrastructure development and manages human-wildlife conflict.

Tiger attacks

Issues of tigers attacking and killing cattle and, on rare occasions, humans (mostly rubber tappers) can be addressed through proper animal husbandry such as erecting paddocks and implementation of best management practices in plantations.

“Tiger prey are generally four-legged animals. Humans are not their natural prey, but occasionally we hear of rubber tappers being mauled by tigers.”

“This is probably because tappers kneel low and in the eye of the tiger, they resemble a four-legged animal.”

“So proper awareness and ensuring conflict mitigation protocols such as fencing are applied helps in addressing these matters,” adds Dr Rayan.

Need for national tiger census

Speaking on applying conservation science and monitoring, Dr Rayan says it’s absolutely critical for the country to have a National Tiger Census and invest in tiger research.

“For us to save tigers, we need to know how many tigers there are.

“The figure 500 has been used for over 10 years. It is likely to be far less now.

“We need proper studies to indicate where the tigers are and how they are doing. Again it’s all about resource allocation and whether we want to make tigers our priority.

“Should we have proper camera trapping surveys and researchers on the ground, we can update our census within two years.

“We have suggested before that a National Tiger Task Force be set up to monitor and ensure the proper implementation of the National Tiger Action Plan.

“We really don’t want our tiger population to be wiped out.

“We still have a chance to save them. It just needs to be executed with a sense of urgency,” he says.

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