Wildlife Matters - Still time to save the Malayan tapir

A FRIEND fresh out of Lunar New Year celebrations asked in jest if I would be writing about goats to commemorate the 2015 Chinese zodiac. I replied that goats faced no conservation threat as far as I know, and in any case the plight of a black and white species weighed heavily on my mind. Yes, the Malayan tapir and not pandas, though the latter gets some mention here.

In 2014, when the two pandas from China arrived in Malaysia to commemorate 40 years of diplomatic ties with China, much of the excitement on their "loan" and arrival was also met by dismay and perturbation; from environmental conservationists and the public alike. This is largely due to the expenditure involved in building the Panda Conservation Centre/Complex (estimated to cost over RM25 million) in addition to all the expenditure the government will incur in "hosting" the pandas in Malaysia for the next 10 years. This colossal amount of money many felt would be best spent if dispersed towards conservation efforts of Malaysia's many endangered species and the management of protected areas. Malaysia's conservation spending isn't exactly on par with the rest of the world.

All things panda appeared to cool for a while; mostly due to the fact there's not much one can do about a signed, sealed and delivered diplomatic arrangement. The issue stirred up again early this year when 1,600 papier-mache pandas made their stopover in Malaysia as part of their worldwide tour to promote awareness around panda conservation and sustainable development. Making appearances in over 15 hot spots in Malaysia (including Putrajaya) there was almost an altered state of buzz in social media over the famous 1,600. While there was an underlying symbolic message through the paper panda tour that aims to promote and instil awareness on local conservation issues, I can't really say for sure that was achieved. In that spirit, however, and acknowledging the many voices that plead (amid the panda frenzy) for Malaysia's native and iconic black and white species to get the attention it so rightfully deserves, I highlight the status of the Malayan tapir (tapirus indicus).

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), being the scientific body that monitors threats of species extinction, reclassified the status of tapirs from "vulnerable" to "endangered" in 2008. Official statistics from 2014 suggest there are 1,100-1,500 tapirs in Peninsular Malaysia but these figures remain debatable. To put that into perspective; that's only almost as many papier-mache pandas that lined the streets recently! Their numbers have declined over the years mainly due to habitat destruction and thereby fragmentation of their habitats. Tapirs are not commonly a sought after species for poachers but sadly, many have fallen victim to steel wire snares placed for other wildlife. It also faces a threat that isn't common to other large mammals in Malaysia (at least not in such high numbers); being prone to being killed in road accidents – 43 run down between 2006 and 2014, according to official figures.

It will be wise not to get comfortable with the population estimates of tapirs as the IUCN lists their population trends as "declining". While the tapir situation is not as dire as the Malayan tiger's, being lulled into complacency will surely lead the tapirs down the critically endangered path as well. Prevention is always the best cure, so foremost; we must ensure that the remaining tapir habitats are secure from further deforestation and other forms of development. To mitigate the wildlife poaching havoc that is resulting in non-target species deaths, on the ground enforcement in hot spot areas have to be intensified. Green infrastructure that effectively allow tapirs to safely make their way across fragmented forests have to be integrated into road development and other forms of infrastructure planning.

It would be inaccurate to say that tapir conservation does not feature in policy documents. The Central Forest Spine Master Plan, is a Peninsular Malaysia-centric initiative which aims to create contiguous forests by linking four fragmented forest complexes through "ecological/forested corridors". It's an extremely well laid out document but perhaps suffers from lack of forceful implementation. In it, tapirs and their habitats have been the subject of studies. Various prescriptions ranging from addressing forest fragmentation through reforestation, land use planning; addressing human wildlife conflict and even wildlife crossings have been identified as key strategies. The implementation of the plan is a mammoth undertaking without a doubt. But to get serious about tapir conservation, a more specific and a narrower lens has to be cast on the entire plan vis a vis the tapir. It is also crucial to fully implement the National Tiger Conservation Action Plan (NTCAP) to further the tapir cause. The plan, which seemingly only benefits tigers, in reality would help address the threats facing the tapirs as well. In effect, tapirs and other species are equally full beneficiaries of an effectively implemented NTCAP.

We are presented with the viable opportunity to see healthy populations of tapirs well into the future. It is simply a question of how soundly and swiftly we act before we lose these gentle shy creatures forever. And that dear readers, is the black and white of it.

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