Categories: Sustainability

Tiger Conservation: Why It Is A Political Animal

*This article was first published on July 29th, 2020.

Compare Malaysia’s progress with that of Russia, India and Nepal.

In 2018, figures recorded in India showed that Royal Bengal tigers have doubled in number from 2016’s 1,411 to 2,967. In Nepal, numbers have risen from a baseline of 121 tigers in 2009 to 235 in 2018, an impressive achievement in a country barely recovered from a decade-long civil war.

And in Russia, where an estimated population of 40 Amur tigers were clinging to survival in the 1940s, these big cats have been brought back from the brink, with 433 individuals recorded in 2015. Strong leadership and unwavering government support for wildlife conservation have been cited as instrumental to the progress in those countries. It’s something Malaysia desperately needs. “Fundamentally, the political will was not there in both the Federal and state governments,” said Kanitha Krishnasamy, Director for Traffic in Southeast Asia and MYCAT Working Group member, when commenting on Malaysia’s failure.

Since 2013, WWF-Malaysia and Traffic Southeast Asia have called for greater leadership and appealed for Malaysia’s Prime Minister to set up and chair a “Tiger Task Force”. The Tiger Task Force is based on India’s National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), which was set up by India’s Prime Minister in 2005 and is chaired by the Minister of Environment and Forests.

The NTCA is granted statutory and administrative powers which allow it, amongst other things, to relocate entire villages and compensate their residents, in order to create buffer zones to provide tigers a safe haven and reduce human-tiger conflict.

In Malaysia, a similarly organised central coordinating structure with the ability to make executive decisions on policy, would allow issues of jurisdiction to fall away, foster inter-agency collaboration and facilitate the allocation of resources that long-term tiger conservation requires.

A case for intervention

Land management and use present a challenge to Malaysia’s conservationists in the drive to secure contiguous forest cover for tiger dispersal. Without the large range that tigers require to forage, mate and maintain genetic integrity, tigers are forced to inhabit increasingly smaller spaces. The risks of injury and death over territorial battles as they are forced into ever closer contact with humans and traffic, or are marooned on habitat islands will hasten local extirpation.

At the time the NTCAP was drafted, 15% of Malaysia’s confirmed tiger habitats were located in Protected Areas managed by Perhilitan. The remaining 85% were situated in Permanent Reserved Forests managed by state forestry departments under the jurisdiction of state governments. Without federal intervention, tiger habitats have been sacrificed as conservation needs are placed in direct competition with state revenue.

The extent of this problem became apparent when Malaysia was identified by Global Forest Change as the country with the highest rate of forest loss in the world between 2000 and 2012, with 14.4% of Malaysia’s total forest cover destroyed.

The loss of Malaysia’s forest coverage has been exceeded only by the rate of loss of its wild tigers. Poaching is the greatest threat to the survival of the species for its pernicious ability to cause the maximum damage in the shortest time.

In Nepal, a relatively low GDP (a projected US$30 billion to Malaysia’s US$365 billion in 2019) has not stopped the small Himalayan nation from becoming a shining beacon of species protection. The results of adopting a zero-tolerance attitude towards poaching speak for themselves.

Between 2011 and 2018, the country celebrated 365 continuous days of zero poaching for rhinos (its other flagship species), and for rhinos, elephants and tigers between 2013 and 2014. The encouraging outcome underlines the crucial impact that political will and making wildlife conservation a national priority play in determining conservation success. In Nepal, the Prime Minister heads its national wildlife crime control bureau. Crucially, 8,000 military troops have been redeployed in the service of wildlife protection.

In a 2018 letter addressed to the media, tiger biologist and MYCAT General Manager Dr Kae Kawanishi called for similar protection on behalf of Malaysia’s remaining wild tigers. A 2018 analysis of tiger seizures by Traffic revealed that parts equivalent to 103 dead tigers were recorded in Malaysia between 2000 and 2018, amounting to more than 20% of the estimated tiger population at that time.

Given poaching’s clandestine nature, these findings were unlikely to reflect the true scale of the crisis. The Wildlife Department, NGOs and citizen conservationists are doing what we can with limited resources but cannot cope with the influx of poachers,” she pleaded. “2,000-army personnel are the minimum needed to resurrect the Malayan tiger now.”

Former Water, Land and Natural Resources (KATS) Minister, Dato’ Dr Xavier Jayakumar Arulanandam’s response to this has been the Tiger Protection and Patrolling Programme (TP3), which has yet to materialize. Other measures have been instigated to plug the gap. Dr Mark Rayan Darmaraj, Tiger Landscape Lead for WWF-Malaysia namechecks Ops Bersepadu Khazanah (OBK) as “perhaps the best initiative launched in recent memory”.

A national level enforcement task force set up in 2019, OBK mobilises Perhilitan rangers and Royal Malaysian Police battalions, including an elite Senoi Praaq unit of highly skilled orang asli trackers, to tackle wildlife crime. Results have been impressive. In only 3 months, 82 domestic and international poachers were arrested, almost 500 snares destroyed, and a money-laundering investigation has been initiated against a local wildlife crime syndicate with operations that span multiple states.

Other community-based anti-poaching initiatives such as WWF-Malaysia’s Orang Asli based patrolling efforts named Project Stampede and RIMAU’s new Menraq anti-poaching team, are collaborative efforts between NGO’s and Perak State Parks Corporation that engage the expertise of local indigenous communities to carry out patrols within the Belum-Temenggor Forest Complex. Besides dismantling snares and deterring poachers with their presence, they help to extend the intelligence capabilities of wildlife rangers.

Similar initiatives have been undertaken in Russia’s Far East where a tough stance against wildlife crimes and trafficking, including the appointment of watch persons, has aided in the recovery of the Amur tiger. According to Dr Darmaraj, an encouraging 89% decline in active snare encounter rates were observed in Belum-Temenggor following Project Stampede’s first year of operation, and information gleaned on patrols has led to arrests.

MYCAT’s 24-hour Wildlife Crime Hotline which accepts anonymous tip-offs from members of the public, has also supported national efforts to eradicate poaching. Since it was set up in 2007, it has received 1,166 reports, 37 of which have led to arrests.

Investing in survival

In the absence of uninterrupted government funding, donations from private individuals and corporate companies have become imperative for conservation efforts such as these to function. Commercial entities such as Maybank and Body Shop have become staunch allies in the fight to save the Malayan tiger.

However, procuring the long-term financial commitment necessary to ensure conservation initiatives create lasting impact is challenging and requires conservation NGOs to spend inordinate amounts of time and resources fundraising rather than focusing on education, outreach and important research and data gathering that support informed policy-making.

India invested US$49.4 million in tiger conservation in 2019. Under the auspices of the 2020 budget, former KATS Minister Dato’ Dr Xavier Jayakumar set aside RM48 million for preserving forests and biodiversity, including RM20 million towards employing more forest rangers and RM15 million for wildlife conservation, with tiger conservation identified as one of the target species this funding intends to reach. Though conservationists deem it insufficient, the allocation is a positive step. Hope floats for tiger conservation to be included in the 12th Malaysia Plan, scheduled to be tabled in Parliament in May.

From a social planning and investment perspective, this can look like money going out with no returns. A recent study of India’s fiscal commitment to tiger conservation calculated that for every rupee invested in tiger tourism, the returns amount to an average of INR 2,500 per tiger reserve. Tiger tourism can sustain local economies, and in Nepal, profits from park entrance fees and licence fees for tour and lodging operators are shared with local inhabitants and channelled back into development projects for the village. Such policies can radically transform rural economies, gearing them away from extraction of natural resources to one that sees value in the preservation and protection of species and their habitats.

By contrast, tiger tourism in Malaysia is almost non-existent. The Citizen Action for Tigers (CAT) Walk, a project initiated by MYCAT, is a rare exception. Directed by trained CAT Walk leaders and indigenous Batek guides, volunteers including foreign tourists, pay for the opportunity to track wildlife and identify signs of poaching and encroachment by trekking through a critical tiger corridor in Pahang. Since it began in 2010, CAT Walk has attracted more than 2,000 participants from 38 countries. Yet there is scant evidence that Merapoh, the gateway town on the western edge of Taman Negara close to where CAT Walk is conducted, is tiger country.

Unlike India or Nepal where tourists can be whisked in jeeps from the luxurious confines of a former Maharajah’s palace or an elegant lodge, through woods and grasslands to watch wild tigers, Malaysia’s challenging terrain, dense undergrowth typical of secondary rainforest and the low density of tigers make the likelihood of spotting one remote.

Hospitality is similarly sparse. The potential for growth, however, is present. Ranked 12th globally in the National Biodiversity Index, and 29th out of 14 countries in the World Economic Forum’s 2019 Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Index, Malaysia is in an enviable position to do more. The opportunity to see a tiger may be limited, but the same landscapes that harbour tigers also harbour other amazing wildlife and impressive natural attractions.

Investment and vision, planning and oversight, as well as the removal of financial subsidies that incentivise deforestation and indiscriminate development are necessary to build this nascent sector in harmony with local ecology and the resident communities close by.

This is Part Two of UNRESERVED’s Sustainability Series highlighting the plight of the Malayan tiger.


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