Tigers Under Fire in Malaysia

By John Goodrich, Ph.D.
Chief Scientist

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The Malayan tiger is the most threatened tiger subspecies, with probably less than 200 left in the wild. Some predict it could go extinct within as little as three years if we do not act immediately. Poaching gangs on the hunt for tiger body parts are emptying forests of these magnificent cats in Malaysia to feed a demand in Vietnam and China that shows no signs of slowing. Despite this dire situation, with 44 percent of the peninsula still covered in forest, Malaysia has the potential to pull off one of the greatest recoveries in tiger range.

Deep forest counter-poaching operations are a game of cat and mouse, pitting the tracking skills of the patrol team against the wiles of a gang. It can take weeks to locate a poaching gang in the deep forest and days more to extract arrested offenders. Gangs spend months inside the forest on poaching expeditions: deploying steel cable snares that target wildlife, especially large mammals. Policing the jungles of southeast Asia for poachers is a daunting task; it presents an enormous challenge in manpower, logistics and endurance.

Confiscated tiger skins

Malaysia is at the western end of an arc of wildlife consumption in Southeast Asia stretching back to the main markets of Vietnam and China. As tigers and other in-demand species used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) were poached to local extinction in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, suppliers of the demand have had to look further to the west to Thailand and Malaysia to fill that void. In recent years this pressure has surged in tandem with the growing economies of market countries and the increased spending power of consumers, creating a dire situation for the already-weakened Malayan tiger. 

The sluggish global response to addressing the illegal wildlife trade (IWT) has allowed this problem to balloon. IWT is now estimated at USD 20 billion per year, ranking among the most lucrative illegal businesses along with drugs, counterfeiting and human trafficking. Transnational trafficking networks have become well established and harder to disrupt. Vietnam, one of the primary destinations for wildlife products, has become an exporter of skilled poachers and sourcing agents.

Last April’s arrest by Malaysia’s Department of Wildlife and National Parks (DWNP) of a gang of Vietnamese poachers deep inside the Taman Negara forest in possession of 190 snares and an array of wildlife parts illustrates how poaching in the region has evolved. While this success is considered the largest recovery of snares in a single operation in the peninsula, it shows how the threat has evolved to industrial levels with these massed deployments of snares. The NGO community in Malaysia has been fairly united in working with the government on several new initiatives to engage the general public and awareness is higher now than ever before. 

Momentum in Malaysia now appears to be building with the dedication of 800 officers from the Royal Malaysian Police to form a joint enforcement task force with DWNP that has resulted in a string of recent arrests. We’ve also seen increased prosecution rates and stronger sentencing for wildlife crimes. However, comprehensive disruption of the supply chain of tigers from the forests of Malaysia to the bone tea drinker in Vietnam will be a long battle, requiring systematically strengthening weaknesses in enforcement and closing loopholes at key stages along that chain.

Strong bilateral information sharing and coordination on investigations to break apart these well-established trafficking networks is essential. At the same time, the urgency for counter-poaching teams to protect the last of Malaysia’s tigers before they are turned into ‘wildlife product’ is greater than ever. Tiger numbers are at an all-time low and while counter-trafficking initiatives have shown to be successful, they take a significant amount of time to develop and run, creating a dangerous lag time in which we could lose tigers throughout the entire landscape.

In the most critical tiger sites, Panthera works with governments and local partners to rescue tiger populations. This requires addressing critical threats, especially by training and equipping dedicated rangers to safely and effectively counter wildlife poachers. Our Tigers Forever program has proven that with rigorous protection we can bring tigers back from the brink. We’ve seen remarkable tiger increases at key tiger sites including Nepal and in Manas National Park, India where tiger density has increased nearly four-fold in seven years.

Back in Malaysia’s dense forests, preventing a poaching gang from killing a tiger relies on early detection. Poaching tigers in the deep forest requires a high degree of expertise and excellent bush skills. That underscores the key role played by Panthera and our NGO partner Rimba, united alongside WWF and WCS in fielding skilled scout teams in the jungle to act as watchdogs to incursions, providing DWNP with alerts of potential gang activity to facilitate an arrest. 

The situation is desperate, but driving forward with this fresh momentum, there is a chance that the government of Malaysia, backed up by united NGOs and supported by the people of Malaysia, can rescue this wonderful creature, the nation’s emblem, for future generations of Malaysians.

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