Say NO to dead tigers

  • Animals
  • Tuesday, 05 Apr 2016

Chopped into four and with a bullet hole on its head, this tiger was found in the bathroom of a home in Pasir Semut, Kemaman, in late January. Three men were detained. Photo: Filepic

In 2009, the nation committed to double the number of wild tigers to 1,000 by 2020 under the National Tiger Action Plan, which spells out the measures needed to boost tiger numbers. With barely four years left to the deadline, we may have to concede defeat. Our tiger population has not grown, but dwindled.

When the plan was drawn up, it was thought that some 500 tigers still roam our forests. Many in the conservation circle found that to be a generous estimate and finally, in 2014, it was confirmed – we are down to our last 300 tigers.

In just half a century, Malaysia has lost 90% of its tiger population and in late 2014, the International Union for Conservation of Nature declared the species to be “critically endangered” (that’s one step closer to extinction) from just “endangered”.

Yes, extinction of the Malayan tiger, a sub-species of the Panthera tigris that is found only in Peninsular Malaysia, is very real. And it can happen in our lifetimes, just like it did for the Sumatran rhinos.

Click on this picture to sign the petition to save the tiger.
Click on this picture to sign the petition to save the tiger.

The loss of six tigers within weeks earlier this year, though shocking, is just the latest in a string of tiger deaths due to poaching and trafficking, driven by demand for tiger meat, skins, bones, canines, claws and other body parts within and outside Malaysia.

Based on the 43 seizures made between 2000 and 2016, it is estimated that at least 102 tigers have been killed during that period, according to Traffic, the wildlife trade monitoring group. But many others would have gone undetected.

Inaction plan

The tiger action plan was a joint effort by the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry (NRE), Department of Wildlife and National Parks (Perhilitan) and Malaysian Conservation Alliance for Tigers (Mycat, a coalition between Malaysian Nature Society, Traffic, Wildlife Conservation Society-Malaysia Programme and WWF-Malaysia).

It laid out 80 actions to be undertaken between 2009 and 2015 to safeguard the iconic species, such as: expanding tiger refuges, improving forestry management, linking fragmented forests with vegetated corridors, protecting tiger preys, waging war on poachers, drafting wildlife laws with bite, wise land use to overcome man-tiger clashes, and improving scientific knowledge on tigers.

All these are supposed to be conducted by numerous state and federal agencies as well as conservation groups.

Unfortunately, many of the actions have yet to be fully carried out. The plan appears to be mired in the perennial problem of insufficient funds for extra rangers and enforcement work, poor land-use planning which causes forests to be turned into plantations or mines and states having ownership over the land.

“Strong leadership, coordination, communication and monitoring are keys to the success of the plan. Although improvements have been made in a number of actions, the overall level of implementation has been unsatisfactory. This culminated in the continued loss of tigers and natural forests,” says Dr Kae Kawanishi, tiger biologist and Mycat general manager.

Patrol the forest

Inadequate implementation of the plan is due to a multitude of reasons, among them are cuts in government funds, increased poaching activities and the rising value of wildlife, says Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) director Melvin Gumal. “If the budget is not there, no patrols can be done. If the price of a dead tiger is so lucrative, poachers will do anything to hunt them. Poachers have stepped up their efforts. We cannot afford not to increase enforcement.”

Poachers, both local and foreign, are emptying our forests. Traffic programme manager Kanitha Krishnasamy says the threat is gaining severity – surveys in protected areas and forest reserves between 2010 and 2013 found 1,728 illegal camps and over 2,240 traps and snares.

Perhilitan has stepped up anti-poaching patrols, as required by the tiger action plan, but they are nowhere near what is necessary. Take the case of Huai Kha Kheng, a well-protected reserve in Thailand close to the Myanmar border. It has nine rangers patrolling every 100sqkm of land.

To achieve the same intensity of enforcement in Taman Negara, Perhilitan will need at least 400 personnel patrolling the park full time. The current manpower is only a fraction of that. There are joint patrols by Perhilitan and the army, but they are not frequent enough.

To avoid spreading enforcement resources thinly over vast forests, Kawanishi stresses the need to focus on priority areas. “We need to have armed enforcement and military personnel protecting the forest interiors, and then flood the edges and easily-accessible areas with citizen conservationists and tourists.”

Funds should also be allocated to enhance informant networks as intelligence-driven enforcement efforts can help combat the vast illegal wildlife trade network.

Chopped into four and with a bullet hole on its head, this tiger was found in the bathroom of a home in Pasir Semut, Kemaman, in late January. Three men were detained. Photo: Filepic
Chopped into four and with a bullet hole in its head, this tiger was found in a house in Pasir Semut, Kemaman, in late January. Three men were detained. Photo: Filepic

Home for tigers

The Panthera tigris jacksoni now clings on to only a fragment of its former domain and even this is broken up by highways, railways, settlements and oil palm plantations. To secure a sizeable home for them, the action plan asked for expansion of parks and wildlife sanctuaries. Three priority areas, Belum-Temengor forest, Taman Negara and Endau-Rompin National Park, have been the focus of conservation and enforcement efforts.

However, areas outside of these protected areas, such as stateland forests and alienated forests which are also tiger territories, have received little attention. If the plan was up-to-date, these sites would have been mapped and given some form of protection. Instead, some stateland forests which form important linkages for fragmented forests, have been alienated for plantations, such as land alongside one wildlife viaduct in the Sungai Yu wildlife corridor.

Like house cats, tigers can breed easily provided they have enough food and space.

“Biologically, it is possible for the population of 300 Malayan tigers to bounce back to 500 and eventually to 1,000. Malaysia has enough forests to support up to 1,500 tigers,” says Kawanishi.

“That can be done by integrating biodiversity conservation into the state governments’ decision-making processes regarding resource extraction, especially forestry.”

Tiger task force

The action plan also suffers from a lack of leadership. Conservationists believe that a co-ordinating body (such as a tiger task force or tiger conservation agency) is needed to move the plan forward, similar to how India’s National Tiger Conservation Authority is authorised to decide on policies, funding, enforcement and habitat protection.

The frequent change in ministry personnel in charge of monitoring the plan is another stumbling block. “Mycat has worked with at least nine different ministry officials on it. The new officer is not familiar with the plan, so things have to be repeated,” says co-ordinator Wong Pui May.

Also, the ministry did not have a wildlife desk officer last year, so progress reports on the action plan have not been done yet for 2014 and 2015.

Petition to save tigers

We cannot afford to lose any more tigers. Given their need for good forest cover and a healthy prey population, protecting the tiger inherently benefits the entire forest ecosystem. So Mycat has launched a petition demanding four actions:

> Maximum penalties for poachers and wildlife traders

> Civil society to be allowed to support the investigation and prosecution process of wildlife crimes

> Owners and managers of lands where tigers roam to bear greater responsibility in protecting the species

> No more fragmentation of the Central Forest Spine landscape and deforestation of tiger habitats

“Six tigers taken out of the wild in just a month is a tragedy that cries out for an urgent response. Every report of a dead tiger has been met with an outpouring of anger from the Malaysian public. We call on them now to sign this petition to help us convey the desperate need for change,” urges Kawanishi.

Stiffer penalties

She says despite strong laws and some enforcement success, poaching and illegal trade continue to undermine efforts to save the tiger from extinction.

“Time and again Malaysia has seen tiger traffickers and traders get away with a slap on the wrist, although the law allows for so much more. Why should they get away with lenient sentences, when tigers get the death penalty?”

The illegal wildlife trade is an organised crime and so, must be treated with severity. Mycat calls for the courts to impose maximum penalties. Though the Wildlife Conservation Act 2010 provides for a fine from RM100,000 to RM500,000, and five years’ imprisonment for hunting or possession of each tiger, these harsh penalties have never been meted out.

In early 2012, the biggest tiger seizure was made in Kedah. A man had, aside from elephant tusks and deer antlers, seven tiger skins, 17 tiger skulls and bones that came from 22 tigers. For this crime, he could have been looking at a really long jail term and fines in the millions. Instead, he was jailed only 24 months and fined RM200,000; so it was a minimum fine for the two charges made.

In another 2012 case, a man caught with 50 pangolins (including juveniles and females), were fined less than the minimum spelt out under the law.

Tiger skins seized in the 2012 case in Kedah. The offender was subsequently jailed 24 months and fined RM200,000. -- FilepicA wildlife officer showing tiger paws seized in the 2012 case in Kedah, involving the body parts of 22 tigers. Photo: Filepic
Tiger skins seized in 2012 in Kedah. The offender was jailed 24 months and fined RM200,000. Photo: Filepic

Getting the evidence

There is also a need to allow digital evidence such as images or videos to be admitted in wildlife-related criminal prosecutions, as is practised in other South-East Asian countries. Take the case of the video footage of alleged poachers posing next to a tiger carcass, said to be filmed in northern Malaysia, which was aired by Channel 4 News in Britain in 2010. Those men were never tracked down and prosecuted.

Mycat also proposes that civil society be allowed to support the investigation and prosecution of wildlife crimes. It says many investigating officers are unfamiliar with the technicalities of collecting evidence or managing crime scenes, while prosecuting officers are not well-versed in wildlife laws and the commensurate penalties.

In one case, four orang asli men charged with killing a tiger in 2010 were acquitted two years later due to improper handling of forensic evidence. Mycat believes these gaps can be filled by legal experts engaged by civil society to help build solid cases.

Alternative penalties must also be explored as the offenders have been able to pay fines with ease. The tiger trafficker caught in 2012, who claimed to be an odd job worker, was able to post the hefty bail of RM70,000 on the spot. Two pangolin smugglers convicted in 2012 paid their fines of RM100,000 each in full.

Mycat suggests that the Anti-Money Laundering, Anti-Terrorism Financing and Proceeds of Unlawful Activities Act 2001 be used on wildlife criminals, together with alternative penalties such as freezing bank accounts, confiscating passports and properties, and revoking business licences.

Sustainable forestry

Studies show that over three-quarters of tiger habitats sits within Permanent Reserved Forests (PRF, forests earmarked for logging) which make up 56.2% of Peninsular Malaysia forests.

As such, PRF must be managed sustainably – through selective logging which theoretically should leave a forest pretty much intact and does little damage to residual trees and the landscape – so they can still shelter tigers and other wildlife.

These PRF must be patrolled to deter poachers. This job should not just fall on Perhilitan. Timber concessionaires can take charge too, such as closing off logging roads, having checkpoints to prevent trespassers and funding patrols in their areas.

Mycat also asks that sustainable forestry certification for PRF where tigers have been poached, be re-evaluated. “It is not right for the timber to be deemed as sustainably produced when tigers have been poached there. It means the company did not comply with one criterion for certification, which is preventing hunting of wildlife,” says Wong.

A wildlife officer showing tiger paws seized in the 2012 case in Kedah, involving the body parts of 22 tigers. Photo: Filepic
A wildlife officer showing tiger paws seized in the 2012 case in Kedah, involving the body parts of 22 tigers. Photo: Filepic

Saving tiger territories

State governments are asked to stop destruction of tiger habitats and further forest fragmentation within the Central Forest Spine (CFS) landscape. The CFS masterplan aims to maintain a contiguous forest along the length of the peninsula by linking up numerous forest patches. This will create 51,000sqkm of wild habitat. No development projects should be allowed within the CFS and measures must be taken to protect forest linkages from being converted for other land uses.

The tiger action plan is due for a re­view during which actions for the next phase, from 2016 to 2020, will be drafted. Mycat partners are waiting for the ministry to call for a meeting on this.

Kawanishi remains hopeful: “Our visionary plan did not fail. It is still the best one for the Malayan tiger. How­ever, despite a number of mile­stones, overall we failed to make the plan a reality. It is time to evaluate where we are and re-strategise the priority actions for the next decade, towards our com­mon vision for the tiger and Malaysia.

“Saving tigers from imminent extinction requires healthy forests, sustainable development, strong governance, and educated and caring people who are ready to take action.”

To report illegal wildlife crime, call the Wildlife Crime Hotline (019-356 4194).

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Say NO to dead tigers


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