Malaysia: Poaching is the biggest threat Malaysia’s tigers face

SIM LEOI LEOI The Star 13 Feb 19;

Tiger numbers in all 13 tiger range countries in the world fell steadily for decades – until 2012.

In 1970, tigers numbered some 40,000 around the world; the number then plummeted to about 3,200 in the 2010s and three subspecies – the Balinese, Caspian and Javan tigers – became extinct.

However, in 2012, Bengal tigers in Nepal and India increased in number, adding to an estimation of some 3,900 animals globally.

“India has managed to increase its numbers. Because India has in place very, very strict and good measures,” says Norizan Mohd Mazlan, WWF- Malaysia’s Head of Conservation for Peninsular Malaysia (Terrestrial Conservation).

The small Himalayan country of Nepal managed to almost double its tiger population to 235 wild tigers in 2018 from just 120 in 2009, putting it on track to becoming the first nation to see such an increase since 2010.

The good news is a result of Nepal implementing better protection for the animals, including raising the number of rangers monitoring poaching.

According to data from India’s National Tiger Conservation Authority, tiger deaths numbered 100 last year, an improvement from 115 deaths in 2017 and 122 deaths in 2016.

So, should Malaysian authorities look towards Nepal and India for its all-important fight against the dwindling numbers of the Malayan tiger?

With almost all its body parts – including even its whiskers and fat! – of some value to the Chinese traditional medicine market, the remains of a tiger may sell for up to US$70,000 (RM290,000). A pelt can be worth US$35,000 (RM145,000).

That is a lot of illegal profit for poachers, who mostly infiltrate into Malaysian borders from Indochina.

“Poaching is the number one threat to our tigers besides forest fragmentation and degradation, and habitat loss,” says Norizan, adding that it not only threatened the big cats but also their prey such as the sambar deer, the gaur and even the kijang.

While foreign poachers from Indochina – Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam – mostly target tigers to supply the lucrative Chinese market, Norizan says locals tend to go after the prey for exotic meat, especially during festive seasons.

“So there’s a slight difference, but we believe that there are some local people acting as intermediaries as well (for the foreign poachers),” she says.

Unfortunately, Norizan says the methods employed by these poachers are totally indiscriminate, as they lay snares that trap other animals apart from the tigers.

Perhilitan’s (Wildlife and National Parks Department) statistics show that almost 3,000 snares were destroyed in 479 operations carried out between 2014 and July 2018; the department has vowed to increase penalties for poachers in an amendment to the Wildlife Conservation Act.

Last year, Water, Land and Natural Resources Minister Dr Xavier Jayakumar told reporters during a Global Tiger Day event that he was seriously considering bringing a shoot-on-sight policy against wildlife poachers to the Cabinet for deliberation, adding that he had also instructed his officials to immediately have a meeting between the army, police and Perhilitan on collaborative efforts.

However, there is, as yet, no word from the ministry on any extra deployment of anti-poaching personnel. The minister declined to comment for this article.

On its part, WWF-Malaysia launched Project Stampede in July last year, aimed at enabling more patrol units, comprising mostly orang asli, to sweep the forest and remove snares as well as provide information on poaching.

“We currently have 10 patrol teams comprising at least 50 members within the Belum-Temengor Forest Complex (in Peninsular Malaysia,” says the organisation’s Tiger Landscape lead spokesman Dr Mark Rayan Darmaraj.

Although these units have no enforcement powers, Dr Darmaraj hopes that their presence will, at least, deter the poachers; however, he warns that Project Stampede cannot be a “cure” for the crisis.

“At most, we are buying time because without specialised armed tactical teams with enforcement power in place to rapidly respond to track and apprehend foreign poachers, we will lose this fight.

“Only if we enable more enforcement boots on the ground and step-up intelligence on wildlife poaching and trade syndicates that lead to arrests and prosecution will we be able to save our national icon.”

Tiger, tiger, burning … not so bright anymore
SIM LEOI LEOI The Star 13 Feb 19;

Like most of the more than two million Twitter users in Malaysia, Muhammad Hazwan Azahar (@HzwnAzhr) usually tweets out memes and bits about his life to his 370 followers. Until the day he tweeted about the Malayan tiger….

After reading a news article about the Indonesian government closing Komodo National Park for a year to allow its population of gigantic lizards to rebound, Muhammad Hazwan tweeted his frustration about the state of Malayan tigers in Malaysia.

Referring to Indonesia, and also to Thailand that had recently closed its famous Maya Beach to tourists because of environmental stress, he wrote: “Doesn’t Malaysia want to do something about its Malayan tiger, which is now in a critical category (of endangered animals)?”

Almost immediately, the tweet went viral, garnering over 18,000 re-tweets – including by actress and ardent conservationist Maya Karin – and 6,500 likes in less than a day.

“(I) Wasn’t expecting this tweet to get so many RTs,” he wrote later.

Tagging Economic Affairs Minister Datuk Seri Azmin Ali, Youth and Sports Minister Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman and Education Minister Dr Maszlee Malik in another tweet, he urged them to do something about the animals’ plight.

Asked why he had written these tweets, Muhammad Hazwan clarified that he is neither involved with conservation groups nor did he have any business to promote.

“But I hope this will bring awareness to those who read it, about our Malayan tiger,” he told The Star.

“It’s just that I really care for our country’s flora and fauna as well as our ecosystem, and then I found out that there are only 250 to 300 tigers left,” he said.

The parks in Indonesia and Thailand were closed to mitigate the effects of mass tourism; in Malaysia, however, it is poachers rather than tourists that are the main threat to the tiger’s survival. Now, foreign hunters are encroaching from the north to pick up tiger parts for the traditional Chinese medicine market. (See story on the effects of poaching here.)

No Crisis Greater

Muhammad Hazwan is right to be concerned about the Malayan tiger.

A subspecies recognised since 2004 after genetic testing, the situation of the Panthera tigris jacksoni, classified as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List in 2015, may be even more dire than many realise. (The International Union for Conservation of Nature is a global authority on the state of the natural world.)

This comes in the wake of a letter, addressed to major newspapers and portals in the country and written by tiger biologist Dr Kae Kawanishi, who believes that “there are fewer than 150 animals surviving, scattered throughout the big forests of Peninsular Malaysia, locally known as the Central Forest Spine”. (“No time left to save our tigers”; online at

Her estimate is independent of the two-year National Tiger Survey undertaken by Perhilitan (Wildlife and National Parks Department), WWF-Malaysia and the Wild­life Conser­vation Society Malaysia, which will be completed later this year.

Dr Kawanishi, who helms the Malaysian Conservation Alliance for Tigers and who has researched tigers for over two decades, also fears that it would only be a year or two before the species “loses its ability to cope” with environmental random events and processes.

“There is no crisis greater than tiger extinction in Malaysia’s nature conservation history,” she wrote gloomily.

According to a Perhilitan statement to The Star, there are currently 62 tigers in local zoos; Melaka’s A’Famosa has the most at 22, Melaka Zoo has six, and another 83 are in overseas zoos as of December 2017, according to the International Malayan Tiger Studbook. If Dr Kawanishi is right in her estimation, this means that there are only slightly more – or perhaps even fewer – tigers in the wild than there are now in captivity.

Already, an update from the still ongoing survey shows that there has indeed been a decline in the population.

During the Third Stocktaking Conference on the Global Tiger Recovery Programme in New Delhi last month, WWF-Malaysia’s Tiger Landscape lead spokesman Dr Mark Rayan Darmaraj said the Perhilitan survey suggests that the national estimate could be fewer than 200 individuals, although the survey is still ongoing and requires further analysis.

“This reconfirms the urgent need for strong action and sustained investments,” he said, even as Global Tiger Forum secretary-general Rajesh Gopal warned at the same conference that South-East Asian countries are at risk of losing their wild tigers altogether.

In a recent interview, Dr Darmaraj said the most recent findings show there has been at least a 50% decline in tiger numbers in Peninsular Malaysia’s Belum-Temengor Forest Complex compared with estimates from surveys conducted between 2009 and 2011.

Dr Darmaraj’s team is currently surveying a new site, the Korbu Forest Complex in Perak – results are expected by the end of this year.

The latest figure is surely a blow to Malaysia’s National Tiger Action Plan that was launched in 2009 to double the number of wild tigers – then about 500 – to 1,000 by 2020.

Domino Effect

There is no question that the Malayan tiger is on the brink of extinction. This is the animal that graces the country’s coat of arms, that appears on the logo of its biggest bank, Maybank, and is the calling card of its national football team, Harimau Malaya.

It’s not too hard to imagine the next generation living without tigers in the forests.

And while there may be some who will rejoice at the thought of coming into less contact, and thus conflict, with such a ferocious animal, the presence of tigers is actually an indication of the health of our forests, on which we depend for vital resources, including fresh water. In other words, the forests will be missing more than just the tiger’s roar.

“As apex predators, tigers are a great indicator of the health of an ecosystem,” explains Dr Darmaraj.

“And having healthy forests relate back to the ecosystem services they provide us with, such as fresh water, flood mitigation, timber, medicinal plants, and ecotourism,” he points out.

And nobody needs reminding – particularly those whose taps are constantly running dry – about how important potable water is.

Dr Darmaraj says removing the apex predator from a forest will have a cascading effect on the general wildlife’s community structure and abundance.

“For example, the species a tiger normally hunts, like wild pig and deer, would become more abundant, and the increase of these herbivores will subsequently cause changes to vegetation due to increased feeding intensity.”

And far from lessening human- wildlife conflict, the absence of tigers could lead to even more incidents, says Dr Darmaraj. Without an apex predator to keep the population of, say, wild pigs, under control, there will be more of these animals in forest fringes around villages and plantations – where they are already a notorious pest.

Early last year, Perhilitan director-general Datuk Abdul Kadir Abu Hashim identified Sungai Buloh as a hotspot for human-wildlife conflicts involving wild boars in Selangor, making up 69 of the 451 cases in the state between 2012 and 2017.

Dr Darmaraj says another effect of the tiger’s disappearance would be the “hyper abundance” of the next top predator, such as leopards.

“This then might alter the dynamics of the food chain, in which densities of smaller prey might be negatively impacted.

“The consequent change in abundance and wildlife community structure and its effects on the forest ecosystem is hard to predict but this is likely to be detrimental over the long run, especially since we do not know enough about animal interactions and functions within the ecosystem.

“This is why trying to explain what could happen if the tiger disappears is difficult, as it is hard to imagine and quantify all the possibilities that would happen,” he says.

Malaysians, says Dr Darmaraj, should take the re-introduction of wolves into the Yellowstone National Park in the United States as an example of what might happen to our forests should our tigers be allowed to die out.

The wolves, long considered a bane to livestock farmers in the area surrounding the park in Wyoming state, were eradicated in the 1920s through hunting and even mass poisoning.

The park, famous for bison and elk, remained free of wolves until 1995, when the animals were re-introduced (over objections from farmers). The re-introduction, says Dr Darmaraj, afforded biologists a unique opportunity to study what happens when a top predator is returned to an ecosystem.

“The wolves were brought in to manage the rising elk population, which had been overgrazing much of the park, but the predators’ effect went far beyond that.

“Many things happened, including a change in river flow, a healthier balance in the beaver and elk population and better balance of the ecosystem overall. Like the tiger, the wolf is an apex predator in its ecosystem,” he stresses.

For Pride’s Sake
Even if we don’t care about the environmental reasons for saving tigers, what about an emotional one? What about national pride?

“The emblem on our jata negara (coat of arms) is flanked by two tigers, making it the symbol of our nation. It symbolises strength and is used in state emblems, as the logo of our national football team, the Royal Malaysian Police and major corporations such as Maybank and Proton.

“If we lose wild tigers, what happens to such symbolism? Even more worrying, if we can’t save our most iconic species, then what will the future hold for wildlife conservation in Malaysia?

“Do we want to be known as the generation who lost the Malayan tiger and everything it represents?”

If the speed at which Muhammad Hazwan’s tweet went viral over social media is an indication, this generation clearly cares about tigers.

“I feel there is clearly a lack of effort and drastic action by the government in trying to overcome this issue,” Muhammad Hazwan says.

“I hope that the government isn’t scared to lose the income from the tourism industry, but be afraid that our future generation will not get to see the beauty of the Malayan tiger in our jungle.”