Race to save our tiger legacy

Behind the fences: Zoo Negara visitors observing a Malayan tiger in its enclosure. Initial results of the National Tiger Survey showed the current population of the animals to be fewer than 200. — AZHAR MAHFOF/The Star

PETALING JAYA: With the number of Malayan tigers in the wild dwindling to below 200, authorities are embarking on an ambitious project to intensively breed and “rewild” the species.

As a start, the project will involve tigers currently at the National Wildlife Rescue Centre in Sungkai, Perak, and will come under the purview of the Wildlife and National Parks Department (Perhilitan).

“The intensive breeding programme will be carried out with the cooperation of zoos in Peninsular Malaysia, and conducted under the direct supervision of Perhilitan.

“Tigers for the programme will be chosen first by Perhilitan via DNA and genetic analysis,” said the department in an email reply to queries from The Star.

The animals, it added, would be chosen based on an evaluation of their health as well as high and good reproductive rate.

The Malayan tiger – the Panthera tigris jacksoni – is a sub-species that only exists in Peninsular Malaysia.

Initial results of the National Tiger Survey showed the current population of the animals to be fewer than 200.

“Perhilitan has to take a proactive and aggressive long-term conservation approach to ensure that the population remains stable.

“One of the conservation strategies is the breeding and rewilding programme,” said the department.

It is understood that the tiger breeding programme will be located at the 40ha National Tiger Conservation Centre (NTCC) in Lanchang, Pahang, which was visited by Deputy Energy and Natural Resources Minister Ali Biju in June.

The programme will involve the breeding of tigers in captivity and their subsequent release into the wild at a suitable location.

To a question on who else would be involved in the programme, the department said “various parties and stakeholders, both in and out of the countries”.

“Perhilitan – as the main initiator of the programme – will involve experts in various fields to ensure its success,” it said.

Categorised as one of the few mega-diverse countries in the world, Malaysia has already lost a few major species, the last of which was the Sumatran rhino. The last rhino, Iman, died last year.

Other major species extinct in the wild in Malaysia are the Javan rhinos, the leatherback turtles and the green pea fowl.

In the wild, the Malayan tiger not only faces danger from poachers, who hunt the animal down for body parts that can be valued at thousands of ringgit, but diseases such as canine distemper.

Last year and early this year, two cases of canine distemper afflicting Malayan tigers were found in Terengganu and Johor.

However, attempts to breed tigers in captivity are not without controversy, with conservation groups pointing to many so-called sanctuaries as nothing but “tiger farms”, most notably in Thailand.

In response, the department reiterated that the NTCC was a government facility managed by Perhilitan. “The centre is not for commercial and profitable purposes. It is specially (set up) for the conservation programme of the Malayan tiger to increase its population in the wild.

“There will not be any room for exploitation in the programme’s implementation,” it said.

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