In Year of the Tiger, a fight to save Malaysia's tigers from extinction

The Year of Tiger may bring luck and fortune to some, but not Malaysia’s critically endangered Malayan tigers.
PHOTO: WWF-Malaysia

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As we approach the Year of the Tiger, many people are hoping that 2022 will bring them love, wealth - or both.

Brands have cranked up the tiger-merchandising machine: Marc Jacobs, Coach, Dior and Clinique are among the many labels to have launched tiger-themed accessories and cosmetics to ring in the Lunar New Year.

So did Gucci, although the Italian fashion house has come under fire from animal rights groups for using tigers to promote its collection.

In Hong Kong, jeweller King Fook is honouring the big cat with a gold "Tiger of Fortune" ornament, while Chow Tai Fook has launched gold tiger trinkets.

"The auspicious tiger in lively poses and facial expressions spread warm blessings, heralding a fruitful year of success and luck with aureate glitter," says Chow Tai Fook's publicity material.

But what of the prospects for tigers in the wild, of which the population across South and East Asia and parts of Russia is estimated at just under 4,000?

In Malaysia the future of the Malayan tiger, one of six subspecies and the country's national symbol and emblem of the Royal Malaysia Police, looks grim.

"Poaching and habitat loss remain the biggest and most immediate threats to wild tigers," says Christopher Wong, who heads the Tiger Conservation Programme at WWF-Malaysia, where the species is a priority conservation target. And with good reason.

Between 2016 and 2020, the wildlife conservation group, Malaysia's Department of Wildlife and National Parks and other NGOs conducted a survey that found tiger numbers had dwindled to fewer than 200 in the wild. In the 1950s, Malaysia had as many as 3,000.

Christopher Wong adjusts a camera trap in a Malaysian jungle.
Photo: WWF-Malaysia

"Every part of the tiger, from whisker to tail, has been found in illegal wildlife markets," says Wong. "Their bones and other body parts are used for modern health tonics and folk remedies, and their skins are sought after as status symbols among some Asian cultures."

The Malayan tiger is classified as critically endangered on the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature. That means it is facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild.

The battle to protect the species, says Wong, is never-ending. "There are often limited resources for guarding protected areas in countries where tigers live," says Wong. Tigers can be found in 13 countries, from the Russian Far East to parts of North Korea, China, India and Southwest Asia to the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

"Even countries that strongly enforce tiger protection laws continue to fight a never-ending battle against poaching, which is now often orchestrated by transnational crime syndicates that rake in significant profits from wildlife crime and undermine the security of local communities," Wong adds.

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The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), a global non-profit which investigates and campaigns against environmental crime and abuse, says the global tiger population has declined by 96 per cent over the past 100 years.

"Transnational organised criminal networks continue to profit from demand for tiger parts and derivatives, primarily in China," the EIA says.

Global non-profit Traffic, which monitors the trade in wild animals and plants, says an average of 124 tigers were killed each year between 2000 and 2018.

"There were a total of 1,142 seizure incidents worldwide. Out of these, 95.1 per cent (or 1,086 incidents) occurred in the 13 Asian tiger range countries, accounting for 2,241 tigers," according to Traffic's report, Skin and Bones Unresolved: an Analysis of Tiger Seizures From 2000-2018.

Wong says the impact from the death of a single tiger at the hands of poachers reaches beyond one single loss. "If a female tiger with cubs is killed, her cubs will most likely die without their mother, and the female's potential for future breeding is lost."

Wong says WWF-Malaysia's focus is primarily on in situ conservation - keeping wild animals in their natural ecosystem - and includes anti-poaching patrols, research, wildlife monitoring, advocacy and education.

Habitat loss is a major issue, with tigers globally having already lost an estimated 95 per cent of their historical range, says Wong.

"Large areas of habitat have been destroyed, degraded, and increasingly fragmented by human activities," he says. The clearing of forests for agriculture and timber, as well as the building of road networks and other development activities, pose serious threats to tiger habitats, he adds.

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"Tigers need wide swathes of habitat for their survival since they have large home ranges and are very territorial," he says, adding it's been estimated that the roaming area for a male tiger is 300 sq km (115 square miles), and for females 100 sq km.

"Fewer tigers in small, scattered islands of habitat leads to a higher risk of inbreeding. This makes tigers more vulnerable to poaching as they venture beyond protected areas to establish their territories. This underscores the need to ensure habitat connectivity between the protected areas where tigers live."

Wong says people and tigers are increasingly competing for space. "As forests shrink and prey becomes scarce, tigers may venture into human-dominated areas that lie between habitat fragments, increasing the likelihood of them hunting domestic livestock that many local communities depend on for their livelihood," he says.

"Local community dependence on forests for fuel wood, food, and timber heightens the risk of human tiger conflict. In retaliation, tigers are sometimes killed or captured where they are likely never to be released into the wild."

Canine distemper virus, a disease that's usually found in dogs but is also carried by other small mammals - and which has been reported as a threat to endangered tigers - also needs to be addressed, he says.

"When we stop threatening the resources required for a self-sustaining ecosystem, the coexistence between human and wildlife can be better managed," says Wong.

"Our goal is to increase the wild tiger population by creating the best possible and safe conditions for tigers to breed. They need large territories with sufficient prey."

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.