*This article was first published on July 27th, 2020.
The fate of the Malayan tiger hangs by a whisker.
WWF-Malaysia’s Tiger Lead, Dr. Mark Rayan Darmaraj said, “Almost a decade ago, Royal Belum State Park, part of Malaysia’s three tiger priority sites, used to have the highest density of tigers in the country of almost two tigers for every 100 square kilometers. Our rrecent surveys between 2015-2018, showed that the population within the larger Belum-Temengor Forest Complex has decline by at least 50%.”
If no immediate and drastic measures are taken to curb poaching, he predicts that local extinction would occur within three to four years. The prediction, made in 2019, is damning news for Malaysia’s national icon. The Belum-Temenggor Forest Complex is one of Malaysia’s three critical tiger habitats. If endeavours were failing here, it didn’t bode well for the country’s remaining tigers.
So how did Malaysia allow its wild tiger population to dwindle to such a perilous point?
This is part of a global decline that the world’s leading scientists are calling the ‘‘sixth mass extinction’’, where just a century ago 100,000 of these fierce beasts were thought to have prowled the earth. A highly adaptive species, Panthera tigris was king, not only of the jungle, but of a range of habitats, stretching from the east of Turkey to the desolate wintery taiga of Siberia in Russia, and from lowland mangrove swamps of the Sundarbans to the high altitude alpine meadows of Bhutan, across the sweltering tropical rainforests of Southeast Asia.
Trophy hunting, persecution, poaching and widespread habitat loss and fragmentation due to human population growth set in motion the tiger’s rapid decline. It also accelerated in the 1990s on the back of Asia’s burgeoning affluence and its insatiable appetite for exotic wildlife.
Slaughtered for their skin, bones, blood and sexual organs for use in bogus traditional medicines and meaningless talismans, sold at exotic meat restaurants and into the pet trade as obscene symbols of wealth and social status, any poetry, romantic fable or exotic mythology that had been written around one of the world’s most remarkable creatures has been supplanted by misplaced values and selfish vanity.
By 2010, as few as 3,200 wild tigers remained, squeezed into a mere 7% of their historical range. The Java, Bali and Caspian tigers were extinct; the South China tiger functionally extinct – they were too few and too far apart to constitute a viable population. Only five subspecies remain, of which the Sumatran and Malayan tigers are at most risk of extinction.
Amidst the sounds of ecological alarm bells, the first-ever “Tiger Summit” was held, organised by the World Bank and presided over by Russia’s President Vladimir Putin in 2010. A high-level conference of decision makers, its aim was to reverse the downward population trajectory by galvanising political will and mobilising financial support. An ambitious goal was set for the 13 tiger nations that attended, Malaysia included: to double wild tiger numbers worldwide by 2022, the next Chinese Year of the Tiger.
Doing so was a matter of human survival and economic jurisprudence. Tigers are an umbrella species. By protecting them we protect the forest habitats in which they live, the biodiversity and the food chain that supports them, which in turn secures the precious ecoservices and natural resources upon which humans and industries rely.
Their survival represents an ongoing supply of clean water, breathable air and adequate carbon sequestration, which in turn can help to mitigate the effects of natural blights like flooding, soil erosion and global warming. In turn, this represents a significant opportunity cost for governments and businesses that would otherwise be left to foot the bill for these man-made natural disasters and human health crises.
Our own Panthera tigris jacksoni, a subspecies found only on the Malay Peninsula, is not excluded from anthropomorphic pressures. An estimated 3,000 prowled the dense steamy forests of Malaya in the 1950s. In the post-independence nation-building that followed, our lowland forests were scythed away for towns and cities, and infrastructure projects. Agricultural land was developed for the production of food, rubber and palm oil.
Revered and feared in the same breath, in the newly formed Malaysia, the mighty Malayan tiger was reduced to a mere pest, to be hunted and killed. Only its designation as a totally protected species under the Protection of Wild Life Act 1972 prevented its complete decimation. Nevertheless, by the 1990s only an estimated 500 wild tigers remained.
In fact in 2008, two years before the Tiger Summit convened and recognising the enormity of the situation, the Malaysian Conservation Alliance For Tigers (MYCAT), which is an alliance of leading nature and conservation bodies, and the Department of Wildlife and National Parks Peninsular Malaysia (DWNP, also known as Perhilitan) published the National Tiger Conservation Action Plan (NTCAP).
Drawn up with clearly defined goals, specific targets and 80 planned actions, NTCAP was Malaysia’s 12-year roadmap to doubling wild tiger numbers. It was greeted enthusiastically and with optimism.
Biologically, recovery was possible. Like their house cat cousins, tigers are prodigious, and provided there is sufficient prey and mating opportunity, can produce two to three cubs per litter over a 10- to 12-year lifespan. Politically, conditions were optimal. Malaysia enjoyed a stable socio-political and economic base; it had national policies that promoted sustainable development and biodiversity conservation. Despite historical forest losses, Peninsular Malaysia had sufficient contiguous forest cover to support the tiger population density and range that NTCAP projected.
Yet by Malaysia Day 2014, DWNP and MYCAT had jointly announced that wild tiger numbers had fallen from 500 to as few as 250. Malaysia’s iconic big cat was moved from Endangered on the IUCN Red List to “Critically Endangered”. Extinction was only a step away.
This article is Part One of UNRESERVED’s Sustainability Series highlighting the plight of the tiger.