Malayan tiger beats a retreat

DECEMBER is here. For many, December isn't just about the holidays or festivities but also a time for retrospection and of course new resolve. Without the need to recount events, it has indeed been a tragic and tempestuous year for Malaysians. As a nation we can't seem to catch a break, and beyond the human tragedies that befell us, ill fate has also set upon Malaysia's wildlife; in particular the Malayan tiger.

In September, through a joint statement issued by the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (Perhilitan) and the Malaysian Conservation Alliance of Tiger (MyCAT) came the shock announcement that Malaysia's current tiger population is as few as 250-340 individuals. This staggering and bleak news comes less than 50 years after former chief warden, W.E. Stevens observed in 1968 in his report titled "The Conservation of Wildlife in West Malaysia" that "tigers are in no immediate danger". Despite the enactment of the first consolidated federal legislation dealing with wildlife a few years later ie the Protection of Wildlife Act 1972 (now repealed by the Wildlife Conservation Act 2010), Malaysia hasn't fared well in species conservation efforts. In 2014, the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species which provides a relative assessment of global species at the risk of extinction, states that Malaysia has 71 mammal species that are threatened. Experts believe the Sumatran rhinoceros to be already extinct in Peninsular Malaysia and on the verge of extinction in Sabah. The leatherback turtle, now declared functionally extinct, has all but disappeared from our shores.

The statement was issued by Perhilitan as the lead agency mandated on wildlife issues in Peninsular Malaysia. Surely a statement of fact of such grim proportions deserved or warranted (at the very least) a ministerial stance. To me, the invisibility of higher levels of government in such announcements sends a signal that wildlife preservation is simply not a national priority; despite the sometimes heard rhetoric to the contrary. Sir George Maxwell in 1927 had observed that one of the reasons that prevented total extermination of an animal was "the national sense of regret at the disappearance of an animal". The national sense of regret that Sir George spoke of can only be demonstrated meaningfully if the government places the prevention of the Malayan tiger extinction as a top national agenda. Other nations have. In India, Project Tiger 1973 was launched after the then prime minister, Indira Gandhi appointed a tiger task force to submit a national report. Nepal's prime minister chairs the National Tiger Conservation Committee and in the year ending February 2014, Nepal proudly proclaimed zero poaching of not only her tigers but also rhinos and elephants!

So what can Malaysia do immediately?

First, the National Tiger Conservation Action Plan (NTCAP), which is up for review in 2015, must begin its review process now and be ideally concluded before the roll out of the 11th Malaysia Plan in June 2015. The review must be done expeditiously, strategically and consultatively. The NTCAP is primarily premised on securing 1,000 tigers in the wild by 2020; a vision that is now reduced to a pipe dream. Don't get me wrong, the NTCAP is grandiose; containing overarching pillars that had the potential to make the vision a possibility given the set of facts at hand at the time. But with almost 80 actions seeking implementation till 2020, it would be no falsehood to say that thus far, execution of the NTCAP has been weak. The review ought to vitally focus on identifying key crucial priority actions (from the 80 listed actions or new ones) within the remaining NTCAP period of five years that would most effectively and feasibly stave off further depletion of the species. Fundamentally, these key priority actions must counter the two biggest threats to the imperilled species that is poaching and forest fragmentation.

Further to the review above and with the narrowed key priorities at hand, the government simply has to commit itself to expend adequate financial resources to ensure key enforcement activities (crucially those pertaining to tiger poaching) are not thwarted by the lack of funding. Simply put, it isn't anybody else's responsibility to do so. If the government can inject RM6 billion to save MAS; labelled a national icon, surely the equally iconic national tiger deserves at least a fraction of that amount to be saved?

Lastly, in view of the dire state of affairs that will very soon lead to listing of the Malayan tiger as a critically endangered species, a cabinet committee must be established immediately, (with the prime minister as chair) against a strict and transparent terms of reference that contain elements of supervision, monitoring, evaluation and reporting on the progress on the NTCAP.

W. E. Stevens prophetically lamented in 1968 with reference to the Sumatran rhinoceros's possible extinction that "there is little room for complacency and little room for optimism". With the New Year looming I choose to be optimistic about tigers; provided the government takes a resolute zero tolerance stance towards any more tiger loss. Not one more.

Preetha is an advocate and solicitor. She has spent many years in the environmental conservation arena. Comments: