THE latest news on the death of a Malayan tiger found wandering around a village in Terengganu, which was caught and tested positive for canine distemper virus (CDV), shocked the nation. The death of this tiger, nicknamed Awang Besul, is a grave reminder of not only the declining number of tigers, but also that we should never let our guard down in terms of assessing and addressing new threats to tigers.
CDV disease has been documented to affect tigers in Russia, where they have been seen walking into towns and on the streets. CDV targets the central nervous system, causing the infected animals to become disorientated and exhibit no fear. It remains unclear how widespread CDV is, as this is the first documented case for tigers in Malaysia. It is hoped that the authorities will be able to further investigate the source of transmission and contain the disease as much as possible, as this represents yet another threat that could further diminish the already shrinking population of tigers.
Even without the latest discovery of this disease threatening our tigers, last year during Global Tiger Day (GTD) I wrote in this very same column about the Malayan tiger being on the brink of extinction. Here, I projected fewer than 250 tigers remaining nationwide, based on the poaching threats observed in the Belum-Temengor Forest Complex in Perak.
Latest figures based on the preliminary results from the first National Tiger Survey as revealed by the Department of Wildlife and National Parks during the Global Tiger Forum Stocktaking meeting in January 2019, have confirmed this. There are now fewer than 200 tigers in Malaysia.
When I reflect on what has changed since the last GTD – though unprecedented in garnering attention for tigers – my heart sinks further, a little short of despair upon realising that our wildlife are sitting ducks for poachers who have figured out that we still lack the boots on the ground.
There is no doubt that the efforts made by the Ministry of Water, Land and Natural Resources under Dr Xavier Jayakumar is highly commendable. These efforts include trying to get support from the army and police, as well as kick-starting a fundraising campaign to pay for joint anti-poaching patrols.
Also praiseworthy is the initiative dubbed Ops Belang under the Department of Wildlife and National Parks that has seen the deployment of 200 personnel to patrol poaching hotspots. These initiatives are truly admirable milestones. Acknowledging that these efforts certainly contribute to our quest to save tigers, the question is: Has this moved the alarm lever down and afforded the much-needed protection for Malayan tigers to bounce back?
To answer this, I fall back on using the Belum-Temengor Forest Complex scenario as a yardstick to predict the state of the Malayan tiger. In view of the 50% decline of tigers and increase of snaring by foreign poachers in Belum-Temengor, during GTD 2018, WWF-Malaysia launched an initiative called “Project Stampede”, which is basically enabling more than 50 orang asli to sweep the forest and remove snares. Although they do not have enforcement powers, they have acted as the eyes and ears for the enforcement authorities and frustrated poachers.
The presence of these teams seems to be deterring poachers, as the snare encounter rate has dropped significantly (98 active snares with a patrol effort of 7,760km walked in the year before the last GTD, compared to 28 active snares from a patrol effort of 20,420km since then). Is this a cause for celebration?
I’m afraid not, as Project Stampede is not a cure for the poaching crisis. At most, we are fire-fighting and buying time. Although this clearly indicates that when extensive patrolling is conducted snaring encounters may reduce, all it takes is a few incursions by the skilful, well-organised Indochinese poachers to wipe out small populations of tigers, particularly within areas that lack connectivity to a larger population.
Vigilance towards such incursions needs to be prioritised and acted upon by armed rapid response tactical teams with enforcement powers, which regrettably has yet to be formed within Belum-Temengor.
To make matters worse, our camera-traps still pick up signs of local poachers with firearms who are likely on the hunt for tiger prey such as deer. When there is a depletion of tiger prey particularly sambar deer, the natural reproductive rate of tigers is further reduced.
In such cases, remnant populations can only persist through periodic immigration from different populations that are facilitated through connectivity of contiguous forests. Such populations are highly susceptible to local extinctions particularly with the added imminent poaching pressure of Indochinese poachers. This unfortunately is not only the scenario faced in Belum-Temengor, but in my opinion is the fate of Malaysia’s tiger habitats.
I again reiterate the call made during last year’s GTD, which is the need to immediately enable more enforcement boots on the ground to halt poaching. If getting the funds for 2,000 army personnel will take time, then we should re-prioritise and pool resources from enforcement agencies to form rapid response tactical teams, and step up intelligence on wildlife poaching and trade syndicates that lead to arrests and prosecution.
This GTD, I sincerely hope that the Malayan Tiger Pledge initiated by WWF-Malaysia will represent a platform for a tangible call-to-action that will garner the highest political will as exemplified in India and Nepal, so that executive decisions on policy, allocation of resources, enforcement and land management favourable for tiger conservation can be made and implemented in Malaysia.
I therefore, ask all Malaysians to lend a voice to advocate greater protection of our Malayan tiger through this pledge.
You can be a voice for our tigers, sign the Malayan Tiger Pledge at wwf.org.my/tigerpledge
Dr Mark Rayan Darmaraj is Tiger Lead with WWF-Malaysia. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org