It’s the year of the tiger, let’s make sure they don’t go away

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Happy Lunar New Year, friends, to those celebrating.

Beyond cute festive cartoons and tiger memes, can we make this a real year for the Tiger, where we see progress in the conservation of the tiger?

The Malayan Tiger, which is unique to the Malay Peninsula, is on the brink of extinction. There may be only 80 to 120 left in the wild, estimates the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which has listed Malayan tigers on its ‘red list’ of critically endangered animals. .

Tigers are magnificent creatures. The largest of the big cat family, these iconic animals are strong and powerful, with flame-like stripes that are unique to each. No wonder they signify power and courage.

The tiger is deeply symbolic for Malaysia, appearing in the heraldry of key institutions including our national coat of arms (Jata Negara), our national football team (Harimau Malaya), the police, the first national car (Proton) and a Bank. There are even tigers on our passports!

It would be ridiculously ironic to lose this national symbol.

Since the 1950s, the tiger population has declined by 95%. Wildlife biologist Dr Kae Kawanishi says it is “highly unlikely” that tigers will survive in the wild for the next century, but admits it is possible. “Biologically, tigers can rebound in numbers as long as their forests are protected.” Other countries have done it.

Tigers are “the ultimate expression of wilderness,” she says. “Not a day goes by that I don’t mourn their loss.”

Tigers have declined along the Malaysian jungle. They lose their home, they die. In the 1960s and 1970s, there was massive logging of lowland forests, which led to a “great decline” in the number of large mammals, including tigers, says the Malaysian Tiger Conservation Alliance (MyCat).

Poaching has also decimated tiger populations, says MyCat. Throughout Southeast Asia, tiger parts are sought after for their purported medicinal qualities. Every part of a tiger is sold, even its blood and bones. Its teeth are used as talismans, its meat in exotic dishes.

I can only hope that the trade will be impacted by the growing recognition that the consumption and trade of wild animals can transmit deadly new viruses to humans. SARS, Covid-19, Ebola and HIV all started when viruses passed to us from wild animals.

The decreasing number of prey species such as wild pigs or sambar deer is also a problem. Tigers have to compete with humans, who hunt with or without permits.

In nature, there is a balance, where tigers, as apex predators, control herbivore populations, which balances the vegetation of the jungle.

The rewilding of Yellowstone, a US national park, shows the depth of this balance. After the wolves returned to the park in the 1990s, the number of elk (their prey) dwindled, allowing the young aspens, poplars and willows – which the elk ate – to thrive. This brought back songbirds and beavers, which reduced soil erosion in the rivers, bringing in more fish. Wolves have transformed the whole ecosystem.

Malaysia’s government appears to be serious about tiger conservation, outlining a 10-year plan last month that included having more ‘boots on the ground’ in patrols and enforcement with police, military and Orang Asli; increase forest cover by 2040; and combat encroachment and illegal hunting in tiger habitats. The Wildlife Conservation Act was also amended in December 2021 to allow for stricter enforcement, with penalties increased to a maximum fine of RM1mil and 15 years in prison.

All of this is great on paper. Hopefully we will see results in practice.

A major problem which has not yet been solved and which has a huge environmental impact is that land is a matter of state. The federal government can enact laws, but state governments ultimately decide. “I doubt that state governments will give up their power to profit from the forest unless they are compensated in cash,” observes Dr Kawanishi.

States have the power to decommission forests from permanent reserves. And they often do, sometimes secretly. Transparency is lacking, as is the accountability of state officials.

Official figures show that 130,000 ha of forest were lost in Peninsular Malaysia from 2001 to 2019. Yet satellite data shows that 725,613 ha of primary forest was then lost, environmental journalism portal Macaranga reported in 2020. It’s an area almost as big as Selangor – it’s just 10% less than the size of the state!

Again and again we see forest reserves – even water catchment areas – being exploited, developed or converted for plantations or mines while the rights of the Orang Asli are ignored.

We need to connect the dots and realize that protecting tigers is not just a conservation dream. It’s a survival strategy for humans – yes, us. Tiger conservation requires protecting forests, which brings many benefits – mitigating floods, maintaining the water cycle and absorbing carbon dioxide, which helps combat climate change.

“The existential crisis is not only about the tiger but also about our species,” says Dr Kawanishi. We need to go beyond symbols and truly celebrate these majestic felines by letting them live in the wild.


Human Writes columnist Mangai Balasegaram writes primarily about health, but also delves into all things human. She has worked with international public health organizations and holds a Masters in Public Health. Email him at lifestyle@thestar.com.my. The opinions expressed here are entirely those of the author.

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