Before the 20th century, poaching was the term used to describe illegal hunting on private property. It was used by the upper class who considered it their right to be the only ones to hunt and fish on their land, not necessarily to stop the endangerment of the animals.
Today poaching is part of a billion-dollar enterprise called the illegal wildlife trade. It is considered the third most valuable illicit commodity after illegal drugs and weapons by the United States State Department. The United Nations estimated the annual worth to range from US$7 billion to US$23 billion in 2016, and it can only be expected to rise.
Today China is widely acknowledged as a major consumer of illegally trafficked tiger parts. With the increase in the standard of living in Southeast Asia, Vietnam comes a close second with tiger bone glue emerging as a favourite. Many believe, even to this day, that by ingesting a part of the animal, one will “absorb” its life force, strength and attributes.
Tiger skins are the most common commodity according to Traffic, an international NGO that monitors illegal wildlife trade. It recorded 758 whole skins seized between 2000 and 2018. Other items seized included bones, claws, canines, paws and even gall bladders, all of which are used in traditional medicine. The Star reported that the remains of a tiger may sell for around US$70,000 and a pelt, for up to US$35,000.
At the lowest level, the actual poachers on the ground hunting these animals are typically driven by the high profit margins versus the low risks of getting caught; the bigger danger is the animal they prey on. The rules and regulations concerning poaching are usually less severe traditionally because the majority of poachers are impoverished locals. For a long time, the means of putting food on the table for many, have largely outweighed the animal’s importance to the environment, as a study on poverty in Tanzania, in Conservation and Society indicates.
However, not all poachers are impoverished locals. Many are professionals who create their own guns, steal weapons from authorities, form coalitions and litter the forests with snares. They not only cause harm to this endangered species, but they also disrupt the ecosystem with their methods, killing other prey in the process.
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) lists poaching as the biggest detriment to the tiger’s survival in the country. A 2016 report by the Wildlife Justice Commission revealed that Kuala Lumpur is the easiest port to illegally transport wildlife.
Snares line the floors of the Belum-Temenggor Forest Complex, making tiger routes literal death traps. As many as 200 snares a year have been removed from 79 hotspots between 2014 and 2018, bringing the total to 2,890. According to Traffic, between 2015 and early 2018, Perhilitan patrol teams encountered at least 52 animals, both dead and alive, caught in active snares in these hotspots.
Perak State Parks Corporation and Perhilitan had also identified that most poaching activities were carried out by Indo-China nationals with the help of locals. As tigers are already extinct in their own countries, they have turned their attention to the few tigers in Malaysia.
In Malaysia, there is not enough enforcement or funding to support efforts to conserve the tiger population. Without funding, the state park cannot enhance their technical ability, increase specialised training or get more advanced equipment.
Between the lack of enforcement power and funding, they have no means to fight back against the professional poachers. This is in stark contrast to Russia where poachers now fight to the death not to be caught.
The majestic Amur or Siberian tiger prowls the vast Russian forests in search of prey. Though a grand national symbol, in the past it was hunted to near extinction for its pelt until the formation of the Soviet Union. Unfortunately the collapse of communism in the 1990s also saw a sharp decrease in the number of revered tigers due to the open borders. In 2010, Russia launched a national strategy to save the Siberian tiger, spearheaded by President Vladimir Putin himself.
The understaffed, underpaid and under trained rangers were replaced by well-paid and well-equipped ones. The funding came from the Russian government and several international NGOs like WWF and the Tiger Trust. In the Far East where 95% of the tiger population resides, anti-poaching teams are armed to the teeth; 14 Russian conservation teams patrol key tiger habitats in military-style armoured personnel carriers looking for poachers, reports CBC News.
Poachers can now be jailed for up to 15 years for killing a tiger. Smugglers and poachers can be fined US$35,000 if caught with illegal wildlife. The number of Russian tigers has risen to 500, from a paltry 40 in the 1940s.
Two hundred years ago, India was home to around 58,000 tigers, but that number dwindled due to deforestation and hunting, leaving a mere 2,000 in the wild in 1970. This further dropped to 1,411 tigers in 2006. Today India has 70% of the world’s tigers.
In 1972, strict wildlife protection laws were implemented and with pressure from international conservationists, India invested greatly in improving all aspects of tiger conservation, including improving reserves, increasing training for patrolling officers and aerial surveillance. In 2019, Nature reports that India has invested a staggering US$49.4 million in tiger conservation and its tiger population rose to 2,226 tigers in 2014. It increased by another 30% to 2,967 tigers in 2018.
Though the situation is dire, not all hope is lost. For Malaysia to increase the number of tigers in the wild, stringent laws and increased patrolling of key areas are needed. If the country wants to revive its tiger population like Russia, it needs to act fast. Last year, two Vietnamese poachers caught with tiger parts were jailed two years and fined RM1.56 million, the highest fine ever imposed in Malaysia for a wildlife crime. That’s one step in the right direction.