Wild Tigers In Crisis In Southeast Asia

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) have raised increased concerns over the future of wild Tigers in Southeast Asia despite recent more positive news from authorities in Thailand.

Main picture credit Keyur Nandaniya on Unsplash

Tiger populations have been declining across Asia for more than 100 years, with extinctions driven by hunting and habitat loss. There were estimated to be 100,000 wild tigers at the start of the 20th century, drastically falling to just 3,200 in 2010. Securing a future for tigers means more than just saving an iconic species. If tigers are thriving in the wild, it’s an indicator that the ecosystems in which they live are thriving too.

The WWF bill themselves as “the world’s leading conservation organization, WWF works in nearly 100 countries. At every level, we collaborate with people around the world to develop and deliver innovative solutions that protect communities, wildlife, and the places in which they live.”

Tigers were commonplace throughout Southeast Asia but are now only found in Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Thailand where they are in crisis.

In 2010, the last Chinese Year of the Tiger, a global commitment was agreed to double the number of wild Tigers. It was the world’s most ambitious recovery effort ever taken for a single species and was called Tx2. Next year will see the next Chinese Year of the Tiger and an even greater focus on the recovery of Tigers.

There has been great progress among many of the 13 tiger range countries who have committed to take action. Due to political support, funding, collaboration, and innovation, tiger populations are now increasing in countries such as India, Nepal, Bhutan, China, and Russia. However, threats to tigers are ever present.

Credit Deb Dowd on Unsplash

Recently in Southeast Asia, a snaring crisis has been emptying forests of their wildlife, with snares contributing to the extinction of tigers in Cambodia, Lao PDR, and Vietnam.

Snares are the biggest threat to Southeast Asia’s terrestrial wildlife, including tiger and tiger prey, with an estimated 12 million snares within protected areas in Cambodia, Lao PDR, and Vietnam.

This was one of the startling conclusions from the report Silence of the Snares: Southeast Asia’s Snaring Crisis. Supported by WWF’s Tigers Alive Initiative, WWF-Singapore, and WWF-Greater Mekong, the report also
warned that snares are decimating wildlife and increasing the risk of zoonotic disease transmission to humans.

To tackle the snaring crisis governments and civil society need to look beyond simple patrols removing snares and push for legislative reform more effectively banning snares while also delivering targeted evidence based demand reduction for wildlife meat consumption. Since launching the report
dialogues have begun with governments in Cambodia, Vietnam, and Myanmar on some of the legislative changes required. WWF’s Tigers Alive Initiative is now developing a new report that will look further into how snaring is directly
impacting tigers and other Big Cat species across Asia.

The intersection of wild and human dominated spaces means that human-tiger conflict remains a significant threat to wild tigers. Additionally, the illegal wildlife trade has also fueled the extinction of tigers, exacerbated by the proliferation of tiger farms feeding the trade and stimulating demand with over 8,000 tigers estimated to be in captivity in China, Lao PDR, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Where There is Hope for Tigers

Tiger numbers are increasing in areas like Bhutan, China, India, Nepal, and Russia – countries that have made major progress in their tiger conservation efforts.

India, which is home to over 60% of the world’s tigers, is setting the gold standard for tiger conservation with the announcement that 14 new sites have been approved under the Conservation Assured Tiger Standards (CA|TS) (a unified grading system for protected area management based on international best practices for managing target species and places), while all tiger reserves in India are also now CA|TS registered sites.

Every year an average of 124 dead tigers are seized, their parts and products trafficked across borders by international criminal networks.

Driven by a demand for traditional medicines, health tonics, ornamentation and increasingly as a status symbol, their skin, teeth, bones and other body parts are big business. Poaching will continue as long as there is demand and
governments fail to enforce trade bans.

The illegal trade of tigers is still a serious threat to the survival of the species and seizures of tiger parts represent only a proportion of the actual number killed for illegal trade.

WWF and TRAFFIC, the global wildlife trade monitoring network, are working together with governments, enforcement agencies, the private sector and others to disrupt persistent illegal trade routes, while reducing demand
for tiger parts through behavioural change approaches in major Asian markets. WWF also are working towards a commitment from the governments in China, Thailand, Vietnam and Lao PDR to phase out tiger farms, which by feeding the trade from captive tigers perpetuate and stimulate demand for tigers, which is threatening those in the wild.

Tiger conservation has also been most successful in countries like Nepal where national tiger committees that are chaired by the head of government have been created to raise the political profile of tigers.

Credit Zulnureen Shariff on Unsplash

Certain areas of Bhutan are now recording first ever sightings of tigers – in the Samtse Forest Division, an adult male tiger sighting was captured on camera traps at a high altitude of 2,775 meters above sea level, which now means that tigers have been recorded in every district in the country. Such high elevation sightings have even been recorded in Nepal. Land of the Leopard National Park in Russia now functions as a wildlife corridor and main route for tigers to find and establish new territories, and the park’s recent surveys have revealed their tiger population has tripled.

There are significant opportunities for tiger recovery in Southeast Asia too. Thailand has the largest contiguous tiger habitat and highest ranger densities in the region. The documented dispersal from Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary into other protected areas in Thailand and across the border into Myanmar is a testament to these resources and strong protected area management in the landscape. And, anti-poaching patrols led by Indigenous community members in Malaysia’s Belum Temengor Forest Complex have seen a 99% reduction in snares over the past few years. 

Malaysia

WWF-Malaysia’s initiative Project Stampede was established in 2018 when there were only three patrol teams. As of 2020 there are now 15 patrol teams operating in Royal Belum State Park and Temengor Forest Reserve. Belum-Temengor Forest Complex in Malaysia is one of Southeast Asia’s most important tiger landscapes, yet it experienced a 50% decline in tiger numbers from 2009-2018 largely due to widespread snaring.

However, since 2017 there has been a drastic increase in the number of patrol teams and a sharp decline in snares, which is good news for tigers and other wildlife in this region. During 2020 a total of 15 patrol teams logged 1723 patrol days covering 11,183km on foot, finding a total of just seven active snares and 31 old snares that were removed by the team. These are promising results.

During the end of 2020 the Malaysian government announced it was allocating MYR20million (nearly USD5 million) under the 2021 National Budget for the Biodiversity Protection and Patrolling programme. Under this programme
more than 500 retired army personnel and indigenous people will be employed to patrol protected areas, including tiger habitats. This increased patrolling presence has been strongly pushed for by WWF-Malaysia and will help to safeguard Malaysia’s remaining wildlife.

Four tigers were captured on camera traps in Malaysia earlier this year. The camera traps revealed a female tiger walking through the forest followed closely by three cubs! BelumTemengor Forest Complex in Malaysia is one of Southeast Asia’s most important tiger landscapes. Since 2017 there has
been a drastic increase in the number of patrol teams and a sharp decline in snares which is good news for tigers and other wildlife in this region.

The Thai Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation has reported that the number of wild tigers in Thailand increased from 166 last year to 177 this year, as a result of its habitat preservation and smart patrol programmes.

Opportunities for Tiger Recovery in Southeast Asia

There is a real opportunity for tigers to bounce back in the wild in Southeast Asia. But strong commitments from governments that prioritize the future of tigers are needed. There is an urgent need for leaders to develop and endorse a regional action plan at the 4th Asia Ministerial Conference on Tiger Conservation, projected to be held in the Fall of 2021 in Malaysia.

Indonesia

Since 2020, WWF-Indonesia has shifted their focus to work outside conservation areas under the Ministry of Environment and Forestry’s authority, which is identified as potential tiger habitat.

WWF-Indonesia also expanded its network and facilitated more partners such as local government, corporations, and communities, to be involved in tiger protection efforts.

The Forest Management Unit in Kaur, Bengkulu Province, conducted a preliminary study on tiger movements and potential connectivity in Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park and Bukit Balai Rejang Selatan. WWF provided capacity building for the staff.

An occupancy survey has also been carried out by Kaur’s Forest Management Unit, which found evidence of tigers in the area. It also found that the area faces connectivity threats due to road construction, which will potentially increase the risk of wildlife roadkill and increase access for poachers. The findings provide insights for authorities to improve management and protection of potential wildlife crossing areas.

WWF has also engaged communities in six villages in Muara Saung and Nasal Sub District in Bengkulu in order to secure wildlife in the buffer zone area of Kaur by providing technical assistance in livelihood, microfinance, and strengthening local community participation in ecosystem-based village planning.

This plan must address the need for increased protected area budgets, staffing, and enhanced political attention and oversight of tiger recovery. It will also need to identify sites for rewilding that can support tigers and address the illegal trade of tigers and tiger parts, including from tiger farms. This rare political moment for tigers in the region and the adoption of such a recovery plan would send a signal that the governments of Southeast Asia are intent on addressing the crisis.

Credit joshua Lee on Unsplash

The public face of Tiger farms in the region tends to be Tiger parks and experiences which remain popular with many tourists who are often photographed holding and posing with supposedly tame tigers.

Many of these tigers live in cramped and highly unsuitable conditions are rumours are rife that they are drugged to ensure that they do not present an issue to handlers and tourists. Many of the tigers are bred in the farms for the tourist trade but as they grow older, will then feed into illegal tiger trading areas.

As recently as March this year a Tiger Park in Thailand had its license revoked after two of it’s cubs were proven to have been illegally imported from the wild.

Here at Flyingdog Travel we urge all visitors to Southeast Asia to avoid Tiger Parks which do not contribute to conservation or ethical treatment of the animals.

Rebuilding wild tiger populations can be done. With the full support of communities, governments, the private sector, and conservation partners, threats against tigers can be eliminated. Otherwise, this iconic big cat will remain under threat well beyond 2022.

Thailand

In 2019 WWF-Thailand expanded their tiger conservation work to two new protected areas: Khlong Wang Chao National Park and Umphang Wildlife Sanctuary. These two protected areas combined with Mae Wong and Khlong Lan cover 4,500km² of high quality tiger habitat in the Upper Western Forest Complex.

From January to June 2020, the fifth biannual camera trap survey was conducted in Mae Wong and Khlong Lan, as well as the first survey for Khlong Wang Chao and Umphang. The team spent 10 months for field work during January – October 2020.

15 tigers, including six adult males, eight adult females, and one juvenile were identified, and camera trap surveys in Mae Wong National Park and Umphang Wildlife Sanctuary identified a new female tiger who had dispersed from the
adjacent Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary. This finding further demonstrates the significance of Upper Western Forest Complex for landscape scale tiger recovery. However, increasing the number of tiger prey in the Upper Western Forest Complex is needed to ensure dispersing tigers settle in
the landscape.

One of the largest wild tiger habitats in Thailand is the world-heritage listed Thungyai-Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary, which has seen tiger numbers increase from 42 in 2010 to 89 tigers this year.

In Dong Phayayen-Khao Yai Forest Complex there are now 22 tigers, up from only eight in 2010.

However overall Thailand is likely to not meet the doubling of numbers target by next year.

WWF’s 5 Ways Southeast Asia Can Recover Tigers

1. Increase political support for tiger conservation 

Governments across Southeast Asia need to prioritise tiger conservation and take quick action if they’re to reverse the decline of tigers. 

Tiger conservation has been most successful in countries like Nepal where national tiger committees have been created. These committees are chaired by the head of the government and raise the political profile of tigers. 

There is a rare political moment for tigers in Southeast Asia with a Tiger Ministerial meeting to be hosted in Malaysia in November this year (2021). The adoption of a Southeast Asia Tiger Recovery Action Plan and commitments to create National Tiger Committees chaired by the head of government would send a signal that the governments of mainland Southeast Asia are intent on addressing the crisis.

Credit Hans Veth on Unsplash

2. Stop the Snaring Crisis

A snaring crisis in Southeast Asia is emptying forests of wildlife, including tigers and their prey. Governments in Southeast Asia must improve national law enforcement to act as a deterrent against poaching, as well as carry out behaviour change campaigns to reduce demand for wildlife meat. 

WWF-Malaysia has worked with the Malaysian government over the last four years to reduce active snares in Belum-Temengor Forest Complex by an incredible 94%. Increased funding and patrol teams formed of indigenous people have resulted in a success in combating the snaring crisis in Malaysia.

Cambodia

Tiger reintroduction to Cambodia remains a long-term conservation goal for WWF and partners. One of the key requirements for tiger reintroduction are sufficient numbers of ungulate tiger prey species.

A report on ten years of monitoring ungulate tiger prey in the Eastern Plains Landscape was released by WWF-Cambodia this year. The report demonstrated worrying declines in the populations of all tiger prey species including the globally endangered banteng. The report attracted wide media pickup particularly within Cambodia.

As a result, there is evidence of the government increasing commitment to dealing with snaring and wildlife meat consumption – the primary drivers of the decline in ungulate densities in the landscape. The Royal Government’s Ministry of Environment and WWF have embarked on the development of a Wildlife Recovery Zone concept which is currently in the process of formal ministerial approval.

The implementation of this intensive Wildlife Recovery Zone in the core of Srepok Wildlife Sanctuary is the next priority. This remains the best opportunity for securing the globally irreplaceable wildlife of this landscape and ultimately readying the site for tiger reintroduction in the future if all the conservation conditions and government support are secured.

3. End the Illegal Tiger Trade

Until governments enforce clear bans on trade in tigers and their parts and products, from any source, wild or captive, their future is at risk.

Governments must also phase out tiger farms, especially in China, Lao PDR, Thailand and Vietnam, where over 8,000 tigers are estimated to be in captivity. The trade of captive tiger products not only complicates enforcement efforts, it also legitimises the use of tiger products and can stimulate market demand for wild tigers.

Credit Vincent Van Zalinge on Unsplash

4. More Effectively Manage Tiger Habitat

Southeast Asian governments must increase the funding of their protected areas. Increased funding, more and better resourced rangers, and utilising conservation tools like Conservation Assured Tiger Standards (CA|TS) will improve the management of these protected areas for tigers, other wildlife and people. 

The Indian government registered its 50 Tiger Reserves under CA|TS and now has 14 CA|TS approved sites. Better management of their protected areas is good news for tigers in the country that has seen tiger numbers increase since 2010.

5. Exapnd the Tigers Range

Restoring tiger habitat, including recovering their prey, must be seen as a critical step in bringing back the roar to Southeast Asia. Translocating tigers to new areas will be key to ensuring a healthy and viable population of wild tigers. Kazakhstan is proving that tiger reintroduction is possible with government support as shown by their reintroduction efforts. Wild tigers are planned to be returned to Ili-Balkhash by 2025.

Source: WWF, Bangkok Post

Credit Zulnureen Shariff on Unsplash

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