Tiger, tiger, burning ... not so bright anymore

  • Animals
  • Wednesday, 13 Feb 2019

Like most of the more than two million Twitter users in Malaysia, Muhammad Hazwan Azahar (@HzwnAzhr) usually tweets out memes and bits about his life to his 370 followers. Until the day he tweeted about the Malayan tiger....

After reading a news article about the Indonesian government closing Komodo National Park for a year to allow its population of gigantic lizards to rebound, Muhammad Hazwan tweeted his frustration about the state of Malayan tigers in Malaysia.

Referring to Indonesia, and also to Thailand that had recently closed its famous Maya Beach to tourists because of environmental stress, he wrote: “Doesn’t Malaysia want to do something about its Malayan tiger, which is now in a critical category (of endangered animals)?”

Almost immediately, the tweet went viral, garnering over 18,000 re-tweets – including by actress and ardent conservationist Maya Karin – and 6,500 likes in less than a day.

“(I) Wasn’t expecting this tweet to get so many RTs,” he wrote later.

Tagging Economic Affairs Minister Datuk Seri Azmin Ali, Youth and Sports Minister Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman and Education Minister Dr Maszlee Malik in another tweet, he urged them to do something about the animals’ plight.

Asked why he had written these tweets, Muhammad Hazwan clarified that he is neither involved with conservation groups nor did he have any business to promote.

“But I hope this will bring awareness to those who read it, about our Malayan tiger,” he told The Star.

“It’s just that I really care for our country’s flora and fauna as well as our ecosystem, and then I found out that there are only 250 to 300 tigers left,” he said.

The parks in Indonesia and Thailand were closed to mitigate the effects of mass tourism; in Malaysia, however, it is poachers rather than tourists that are the main threat to the tiger’s survival. Now, foreign hunters are encroaching from the north to pick up tiger parts for the traditional Chinese medicine market. (See story on the effects of poaching here.)

Malayan tiger facing extinction in the wild because of poaching

No Crisis Greater

Muhammad Hazwan is right to be concerned about the Malayan tiger.

A subspecies recognised since 2004 after genetic testing, the situation of the Panthera tigris jacksoni, classified as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List in 2015, may be even more dire than many realise. (The International Union for Conservation of Nature is a global authority on the state of the natural world.)

This comes in the wake of a letter, addressed to major newspapers and portals in the country and written by tiger biologist Dr Kae Kawanishi, who believes that “there are fewer than 150 animals surviving, scattered throughout the big forests of Peninsular Malaysia, locally known as the Central Forest Spine”. (“No time left to save our tigers”; online at bit.ly/star_tiger.)

Her estimate is independent of the two-year National Tiger Survey undertaken by Perhilitan (Wildlife and National Parks Department), WWF-Malaysia and the Wild­life Conser­vation Society Malaysia, which will be completed later this year.

Dr Kawanishi, who helms the Malaysian Conservation Alliance for Tigers and who has researched tigers for over two decades, also fears that it would only be a year or two before the species “loses its ability to cope” with environmental random events and processes.

“There is no crisis greater than tiger extinction in Malaysia’s nature conservation history,” she wrote gloomily.

According to a Perhilitan statement to The Star, there are currently 62 tigers in local zoos; Melaka’s A’Famosa has the most at 22, Melaka Zoo has six, and another 83 are in overseas zoos as of December 2017, according to the International Malayan Tiger Studbook. If Dr Kawanishi is right in her estimation, this means that there are only slightly more – or perhaps even fewer – tigers in the wild than there are now in captivity.

Already, an update from the still ongoing survey shows that there has indeed been a decline in the population.

During the Third Stocktaking Conference on the Global Tiger Recovery Programme in New Delhi last month, WWF-Malaysia’s Tiger Landscape lead spokesman Dr Mark Rayan Darmaraj said the Perhilitan survey suggests that the national estimate could be fewer than 200 individuals, although the survey is still ongoing and requires further analysis.

“This reconfirms the urgent need for strong action and sustained investments,” he said, even as Global Tiger Forum secretary-general Rajesh Gopal warned at the same conference that South-East Asian countries are at risk of losing their wild tigers altogether.

In a recent interview, Dr Darmaraj said the most recent findings show there has been at least a 50% decline in tiger numbers in Peninsular Malaysia’s Belum-Temengor Forest Complex compared with estimates from surveys conducted between 2009 and 2011.

Dr Darmaraj’s team is currently surveying a new site, the Korbu Forest Complex in Perak – results are expected by the end of this year.

The latest figure is surely a blow to Malaysia’s National Tiger Action Plan that was launched in 2009 to double the number of wild tigers – then about 500 – to 1,000 by 2020.

Domino Effect

Malayan tiger facing extinction in the wild because of poaching
Dr Darmaraj: There’s a 50% decline in tigers in Malaysia’s Belum-Temengor Forest Complex compared to 2009 and 2011. Photo: WWF-Malaysia

There is no question that the Malayan tiger is on the brink of extinction. This is the animal that graces the country’s coat of arms, that appears on the logo of its biggest bank, Maybank, and is the calling card of its national football team, Harimau Malaya.

It’s not too hard to imagine the next generation living without tigers in the forests.

And while there may be some who will rejoice at the thought of coming into less contact, and thus conflict, with such a ferocious animal, the presence of tigers is actually an indication of the health of our forests, on which we depend for vital resources, including fresh water. In other words, the forests will be missing more than just the tiger’s roar.

“As apex predators, tigers are a great indicator of the health of an ecosystem,” explains Dr Darmaraj.

“And having healthy forests relate back to the ecosystem services they provide us with, such as fresh water, flood mitigation, timber, medicinal plants, and ecotourism,” he points out.

And nobody needs reminding – particularly those whose taps are constantly running dry – about how important potable water is.

Dr Darmaraj says 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.”

And far from lessening human- wildlife conflict, the absence of tigers could lead to even more incidents, says Dr Darmaraj. 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 are already a notorious pest.

Early last year, Perhilitan director-general Datuk Abdul Kadir Abu Hashim identified Sungai Buloh as a hotspot for human-wildlife conflicts involving wild boars in Selangor, making up 69 of the 451 cases in the state between 2012 and 2017.

Dr Darmaraj says another effect of the tiger’s disappearance would be the “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, especially since we do not know enough about animal interactions and functions within the ecosystem.

“This is why trying to explain what could happen if the tiger disappears is difficult, as it is hard to imagine and quantify all the possibilities that would happen,” he says.

Malaysians, says Dr Darmaraj, should take the re-introduction of wolves into the Yellowstone National Park in the United States as an example of what might happen to our forests should our tigers be allowed to die out.

The wolves, long considered a bane 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 re-introduced (over objections from farmers). The re-introduction, says Dr Darmaraj, afforded biologists a unique opportunity to study what happens when a top predator is returned to an ecosystem.

“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. Like the tiger, the wolf is an apex predator in its ecosystem,” he stresses.

For Pride’s Sake

Even if we don’t care about the environmental reasons for saving tigers, what about an emotional one? What about national pride?

“The emblem on our jata negara (coat of arms) is flanked by two tigers, making it the symbol of our nation. It symbolises strength and is used in state emblems, as the logo of our national football team, the Royal Malaysian Police and major corporations such as Maybank and Proton.

“If we lose wild tigers, what happens to such symbolism? Even more worrying, if we can’t save our most iconic species, then what will the future hold for wildlife conservation in Malaysia?

“Do we want to be known as the generation who lost the Malayan tiger and everything it represents?”

If the speed at which Muhammad Hazwan’s tweet went viral over social media is an indication, this generation clearly cares about tigers.

“I feel there is clearly a lack of effort and drastic action by the government in trying to overcome this issue,” Muhammad Hazwan says.

“I hope that the government isn’t scared to lose the income from the tourism industry, but be afraid that our future generation will not get to see the beauty of the Malayan tiger in our jungle.”

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