Can we secure a future for Malaysia’s apex predator?
It was hot and humid that afternoon when my field assistant and I were walking along a trail at the edge of a rubber plantation in Jeli, Kelantan back in mid 2006. We were in search of evidence of the presence of a tiger in the vicinity. We have done this numerous times whilst carrying out field surveys but it was different this time.
Every rustling sound of the leaf litter or snap of a twig, presumably made by squirrels and wild pigs respectively, made us for the first time to frantically look for the source of the sound. Images from the day before, of shredded pieces of cloth stained with blood had invaded our minds and blocked all rational thoughts. The fact that there was a man-eater in the vicinity made us anxious. Usually I would be eager and hopeful to get a glimpse of a tiger during field surveys but for the very first time, on this day I wished that I would not see a tiger.
A day before, a rubber tapper was mauled, parts of her body were eaten and found at three different locations. My field assistant and I were there to set up camera-traps with the hope of photo capturing the perpetrator to assist the authorities in possibly identifying the problem animal. Our presence and engagement with the community was also needed to help ease the tension that villagers were going through. In addition to this, it was crucial for us to explain to them, the need to not take matters into their own hands and to allow the relevant authorities to carry out their work on catching the animal. It was one of the most difficult moments in my life as a field biologist and a conservationist when I was faced with the victim’s son who posed me these questions: ‘Why did this happen?’ and ‘Do you know which tiger did this?’.
The authorities never caught the animal and no fatality was reported since then. It was later revealed to me by an experienced personnel from the district’s Wildlife Department that most of the conflict tigers caught in the area in the past were either old or injured from snaring or gunshot wounds.
Human-tiger conflict in the area intensified in 2002 when four people were killed by tigers. This led to the announcement by the Chief Minister of Kelantan to kill all tigers in the district of Jeli. Due to public outcry, this did not take effect. In 2004, WWF-Malaysia stepped in to mitigate the conflict in the area and my job was to figure out how many tigers were in that area. We camera-trapped three males and three females over the period of nine months and estimated 2.59 adult tigers per 100sqkm in the area. We also camera-trapped a female and three cubs in the area indicating that conditions in terms of habitat and prey may well be sufficient for tigers if they are breeding in such natural logged-over forest. This of course does not mean that tigers do better in natural logged-over forest than primary forest but rather that they may persist in such areas. The main implication of this finding is that such altered habitat may still be good tiger habitats as long as they remain as natural forest as opposed to being converted to other land uses such as monoculture plantations.
Conducting a questionnaire with the orang asli
to investigate their attitudes towards tigers
For many wildlife biologists out there, observing the focal species of interest in the wild is always rewarding. This is so because these events tend to be unique and very often are rare moments that only people who spend so much time in the field can experience. Though I have researched tigers for the past eight years and as odd as it may sound, unfortunately, I have yet to see a tiger in the wild in Malaysia. This perhaps bears testimony to the fact that tigers are elusive and cryptic in nature and in general, tend to shy away from humans.
Poaching of tigers and their prey is the most serious short term threat in Malaysia and if not mitigated and ultimately eradicated, will lead to local extinctions of populations in core tiger areas. Tiger densities can be expected to be lower in areas where historical and current poaching of tiger prey has been or continues to be rampant. Nevertheless, poaching, habitat loss, habitat fragmentation and human tiger conflict retaliation may vary at different intensities across sites in Malaysia. Therefore, landscape-based conservation measures that mitigate these site specific threats are critically needed to save tigers in Malaysia.
I believe that the average Malaysian can make a difference in the conservation of tigers, by reporting any observation of illegal hunting and unlawful sale of tiger body parts or tiger prey, and refusing to support any entity that does not follow environmental regulations.
The time to act is NOW. We are in a race against time. I’d like to think that no Malaysian would want to feel guilty of being part of a generation that was responsible for failing to save wild tigers in this country. Is it too late for us to realise that when we save tigers, we save so much more than just the animal -- we save the habitat, its functions and ultimately ourselves.
Mark Rayan Darmaraj, Ph.D, Lead Research Scientist.
Tiger Conservation Programme, WWF-Malaysia