Malaysia: Is there still a chance to save the Malayan tiger?

Fewer than 150 wild tigers remain in Malaysia’s forests, where 3,000 once roamed in the 1950s.

Malayan tiger named Wira reacts during it's 2nd birthday celebration at National Zoo in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia May 1, 2021.
Authorities say there are only 150 tigers left in the wild in Malaysia [File: Lim Huey Teng/ Reuters]

In 2019, Malaysian conservationist Mark Rayan Darmaraj warned that the critically endangered Malayan tiger would be extinct by about this year if efforts to save it were not intensified.

But while the pandemic has offered this subspecies – one of five remaining in the world – a brief respite from poaching, they are still only clinging on. A national survey concluded in 2020 estimated that there remain fewer than 150 wild tigers in Malaysia’s forests, where 3,000 once roamed in the 1950s.

It’s a global struggle.

A century ago, approximately 100,000 wild tigers existed worldwide; by 2010, roughly 3,200 remained, squeezed into seven percent of their historical range.

Over the past 10 years, conservation efforts in Malaysia and Southeast Asia have lagged behind other countries with tiger populations like India and Nepal – the difference due to “their substantial resource allocation and political will”, Darmaraj told Al Jazeera.

The number of Malaysia’s wild tigers continues to shrink despite promising initiatives, such as deploying the army and the Indigenous Orang Asli to patrol the jungle for poaching activity.

Darmaraj led WWF Malaysia’s tiger conservation efforts for more than 10 years and is now the country director of the Wildlife Conservation Society in Malaysia.

Al Jazeera spoke to him to find out why conservation efforts are failing and if there is still a chance of saving the Malayan tiger.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Al Jazeera: In 2009, the National Tiger Conservation Action Plan was introduced to double the number of Malayan tigers in Malaysia to 1,000 by 2020. It’s now 2022, and it’s estimated that there are only about 150 wild tigers left. Why have conservation efforts since failed to work?

Mark Rayan Darmaraj: It is likely that we could have overestimated the figure of 500 tigers back then, but with numbers subsequently dwindling to less than 150, this still begs the question of how effective Malaysia’s action plan was and why it didn’t at least stabilise tiger numbers. To be honest, the action plan had the right recipe but was lacking in terms of political will, financing and resource mobilisation.

For example, in recent years it has been estimated that at least 2,500–5,000 rangers are needed to patrol wildlife habitats in Peninsular Malaysia. Throughout much of the action plan period, there had been a minimal increase in the number of rangers. Only from around 2018 onwards did we see an increase in patrolling through initiatives by the federal government, state parks and also NGOs. Even this is not sufficient, and it needs to be stepped up even further.

Another challenge was making sure tiger habitat remained as forest, and connectivity between forest patches maintained. This requires states [in Malaysia individual states have responsibility for land] to come on board and fully commit to actively devising a plan on maintaining natural forest, in which the protection or conversion of tiger habitat depends on decisions by the relevant state governments. This is where political will was and is mostly needed, coupled with innovative financing to ensure the preservation of intact, interconnected forest through a network of safe corridors within the country.

AJ: What are the most important factors causing the near extinction of the Malayan tiger?

MRD: The main cause of this drastic decline is poaching of tigers and their prey. Ten years ago, we only found isolated incidences of snaring, but since then hundreds of snares have been detected in our forests. Many more remain undetected, as we cannot patrol the entire forest complexes intensively. Massive snaring by Indochinese poachers has the potential to wipe out large mammals within a relatively short period of time. Local poachers are also a threat, but they focus mainly on forest fringes and areas which are accessible by car, off-road vehicles or boat.

Another major factor that is not enabling tigers to reproduce fast enough to repopulate an area is the decline of large tiger prey such as sambar deer. Sambar deer is the largest deer species in Malaysia and as such is likely the most preferred prey species based on their body weight ratio to tigers. The decline of sambar deer is also due to poaching, but mainly from local poachers who have long hunted the deer for its meat.

The other major threat is large-scale conversion of tiger habitat to other land use, as well as fragmentation of these habitats into smaller patches of forest. Tigers in tropical forests such as Malaysia have large home ranges, and huge areas of forest are required for a sufficient number of tigers to persist over the long term. Isolated patches of forest that lack connectivity are more susceptible to localised extinction due to diseases and also because movement of potential dispersing tigers into these areas are minimised, and thereby reducing chances of replenishing the population.

AJ: A state forestry department director has attracted criticism by saying logging is good for tigers, mischaracterising your research – which you’ve said inferred only that selectively logged forest can play a part in tiger conservation by not being converted to monoculture plantations. Does Malaysia need to desist from business as usual?

MRD: I think my stance has been clear in the op-ed, but what frustrates me is the fact that instead of figuring out what kind of financing mechanisms will enable the preservation of natural forest – whether logged or unlogged -– we seem to regress back into the usual mode of justifying current forest resource management. Shouldn’t we be figuring out and prioritising the tangible measures that both state and federal governments need to take instead of bickering whether logging is good or not for tigers?

AJ: What actions should be prioritised to seriously address their dwindling numbers? Is there still hope of turning the situation around?

MRD: One sorely lacking component in our country is that the first line of defence is not there – we don’t have enough front-line rangers to protect our wildlife from poachers. Poachers are still able to operate simply because they outnumber enforcement personnel, and once they’re inside the jungle it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack. Perhaps wildlife protection is not seen as a national priority and that is why there isn’t adequate allocation to enable enough resources for enforcement work or patrolling, even though poaching is the biggest threat towards our wildlife.

However, a recent initiative called “Operasi Bersepadu Khazanah” by the Royal Malaysian Police and the Department of Wildlife and National Parks has borne very positive results. In 2021, 133 people were arrested under this initiative whilst seizures worth 32 million Malaysian ringgit [$7.6m] were made and 303 snares destroyed. This is perhaps the best initiative launched in recent memory, which enables both joint patrolling between agencies as well as providing rapid response teams to act on information provided. The challenge now is to make sure that this initiative continues, and that adequate funds are pumped in to enhance their efforts particularly by increasing intelligence gathering to break the wildlife trade chain.

In addition, Malaysia has also established the “Biodiversity Protection and Patrolling Programme” which mobilises hundreds of patrollers consisting of veteran army personnel and Indigenous people. This is one of the most significant initiatives for on-the-ground protection of wildlife and has active participation by environmental NGOs. In fact, this year 800 of these rangers were recently appointed; a significant increase from the initial 150 rangers who were appointed in 2020, the first year this initiative was established.

A couple of other recent major initiatives are the formation of the National Tiger Conservation Task Force and possible formation of a Wildlife Crime Bureau under the police, and the strengthening of the Wildlife Conservation Act 2010. Although these initiatives should have come earlier, there is still a window of hope with these now being rolled out.

Whether this strategic action plan outlined to save Malayan tigers will succeed or not depends on which actions and how fast these will be executed and whether they will be comprehensive enough to cover the various gaps.

AJ: More broadly, what other effects would the extinction of the Malayan tiger have, especially on our environment? What should we be aware of, even if we never see one since sightings are rare in Malaysia where tiger tourism isn’t possible as in countries like India and Nepal?

MRD: From an ecological point of view, tigers are excellent indicators of the health of the ecosystem. Removing the apex predator from a forest will have a cascading effect on the general wildlife’s community structure and abundance.

For example, the species a tiger normally hunts, like wild pig and deer, would become more abundant, and the increase of these herbivores will subsequently cause changes to vegetation due to increased feeding intensity. Without an apex predator to keep the population of, say, wild pigs, under control, there will be more of these animals in forest fringes around villages and plantations – where they may be already considered as pests by some.

Another effect of the tiger’s disappearance would be the potential “hyper abundance” of the next top predator, such as leopards. This then might alter the dynamics of the food chain, in which densities of smaller prey might be negatively impacted. The consequent change in abundance and wildlife community structure and its effects on the forest ecosystem is hard to predict but this is likely to be detrimental over the long run.

The most applicable scenario to link what might happen to our forests should our tigers be allowed to die out is to look at the re-introduction of wolves into the Yellowstone National Park in the United States. The wolves, long considered a pest to livestock farmers in the area surrounding the park in Wyoming state, were eradicated in the 1920s through hunting and even mass poisoning. The park, famous for bison and elk, remained free of wolves until 1995, when the animals were reintroduced – over objections from farmers. The wolves were brought in to manage the rising elk population, which had been overgrazing much of the park, but the predators’ effect went far beyond that. Many things happened, including a change in river flow, a healthier balance in the beaver and elk population and better balance of the ecosystem overall. And like the tiger, the wolf is an apex predator in its ecosystem.

I think we should be proud that Malaysia is one of only a few countries worldwide which still harbour tigers in the wild, and we shouldn’t take this for granted. Even though the vast majority of us will never see one in the wild, tigers have immense ecological, cultural and symbolic value. If we can’t save our most iconic species, then what will the future hold for other wildlife in Malaysia?

Source: Al Jazeera