Saving Malaysia’s last wild tigers is an uphill struggle

8 Januari 2021

The fate of the Malayan tiger (Panthera tigris jacksoni) in the Southeast Asian nation of Malaysia hangs in the balance. Wild populations of the tigers have plummeted to an all-time low while continued habitat loss, rampant poaching and biodiversity loss, including the tigers’ prey animals, are posing an existential threat to the country’s stately predators.

Some local conservationists are pulling out all the stops to try and save Malaysia’s endemic tigers so the animals can avoid the fate of their cousins Balinese and Javan tigers, two other subspecies that  have gone extinct in the region in recent decades.

Environmentally conscious Malaysian business leaders like Vinod Sekhar, who is chairman and chief executive of the Petra Group, a local conglomerate, too, are seeking to help save the animals. The tycoon, who is chairman of the Sekhar Foundation, which donates large sums of money to social and environmental causes, is calling for urgent action to protect what he calls “the symbol of Malaysia’s pride.”

Sustainability Times has spoken with Mr. Sekhar about what can be done to bring his nation’s critically endangered tigers back from the very edge of extinction.

Sustainability Times: How dire is the situation of Malayan tigers?

Vinod Sekhar: The Malayan tiger (Panthera tigris jacksoni) is a subspecies unique to the Malay Peninsula. Back in the mid-1900s, an estimated 3,000 Malayan tigers were still roaming Malaysia’s rainforests. But today, they have been tragically hunted down to a mere 200. Since 2015, they have been classified as “Critically Endangered” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (INCU) Red List.

Vinod Sekhar is chairman and CEO of the Petra Group, a Malaysian company that focuses on biotechnology and other areas of business. and chairman of the Sekhar Foundation. .

WWF Malaysia’s priority site is the Belum-Temenggor Forest Complex in the state of Perak, where the number of Malayan Tigers has declined by 50% in the past decade. If the situation doesn’t improve, they may not even survive another generation as they face an extremely high chance of going extinct.

Without major, imminent intervention, the Malayan Tigers will vanish within two years.

What are the greatest threats facing the tigers?

It is sad that our tigers’ future is uncertain, and we Malaysians are singularly responsible. There are many factors that are threatening their population – loss of habitat, deforestation due to rapid development, agricultural land was developed to produce food, rubber, and palm oil.

All these have also led to lesser prey for sustenance. But the pressing issue here is that illegal poachers are entering Malaysia’s forests and setting up snares (a steel cable noose) to trap the Malayan tigers. It is a slow and painful death that is beyond inhumane, it is a crime against the soul of our nation.

Malayan tigers are regarded as emblematic animals in Malaysia, yet they have fallen on hard times in the wild. What is the main reason for this disconnect between their image and the reality?

Trophy hunting, poaching, and widespread habitat loss due to rapid development have accelerated the Malayan tigers’ decline. They are hunted for decorative, ornamental and its perceived medicinal value. Asia’s burgeoning affluence and greed for exotic wildlife in the 1900s are also reasons for the disconnect.

Even if many of these people are aware of the tigers’ dwindling numbers, conservation would not be a part of their consideration list – all they want is the pride, social status, and satisfaction from having these tigers in their hands in one form or another.

One of the world’s most remarkable creatures has been supplanted by misplaced values and selfish vanity.

What can be done to save the tigers from extinction in the wild?

Malaysia’s government conducts joint operations with the army, police, the Forestry Department, non-governmental organizations. The construction of the National Tiger Conservation Centre (in Lanchang, Pahang) has completed, and will start operations in March 2021.

There are several organizations actively working towards the common goal of saving Malayan tigers. One of them is Rimau, a Malaysian non-profit. Not only do they focus on raising funds and awareness to bring the Malayan tigers back from the brink of extinction, but they also work on providing the Orang Asli (the indigenous people of Malaysia) a much-needed alternative livelihood.

Poaching remains an existential threat to Malaysia’s dwindling population of tigers. (photo: Flickr)

Together with the Perak State Parks Corporation under the leadership of their General Manager, Mr. Shah Reza, Rimau created the Menraq Patrol Unit. “Menraq” means “the people” in the language of the Jahai Orang Asli community that reside in Royal Belum State Park. This is a vast jungle area covering 117,500 hectares in northern Peninsular Malaysia on the border with Thailand.

Rimau and Menraq are working together on a community patrolling project to search for and dispose of the snares placed in Royal Belum. This has helped to nurture a sense of ownership in wildlife conservation amongst the Orang Asli, allowing them to maintain pride and responsibility for their home, and giving them dignity and purpose in this fast-evolving world.

It’s a win-win situation. The critical work of Rimau and the Perak State Parks Corporation saves the Malayan tiger, while at the same time provide work and dignity to the Orang Asli, the true but disenfranchised landlords of Malaysia.

The Menraq scheme will be followed by a larger scale project to create the PETRA Rangers. These rangers will be auxiliary police officers that undergo specialist forest ranger training. They will patrol the rainforest together with the park rangers and Orang Asli to track down the poachers and arrest them.

Are there any promising signs that the tigers can indeed be still saved?

WWF-Malaysia is supporting the Malaysian Government to establish long-term, sustainable solutions to protect Malaysia’s tigers and secure a future for all the biodiversity in the Belum-Temengor Forest Complex. They had set up camera traps in early 2020, and since then, the field team revealed rare images of four Malayan tigers in the Belum-Temengor Forest Complex: a female tiger with three cubs between one-and-a-half and two years old.

They were spotted on camera again just a month later. With the joint effort of the government, NGOs, and various conservation bodies, hopefully we can increase awareness of the dire state of our Malayan tigers, and protect them from human threat. It’s a long and arduous task, but we intend to reverse this.

Failure is not an option.

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