What it takes to save a dying species
By DARSHANA SIVANANTHAM
Fact: The total number of wild tigers in the world today is estimated at 3,890. Thirteen tiger range countries have pledged to double the number of tigers in their respective countries by 2022, the next year of the Tiger.
The race to save the Malayan tiger, a symbol of national pride and strength, is not new. In the 1950s Malaysia was thought to have around 3,000 tigers. Today, the number stands at a dangerous low of between 250 and 340.
Conservationists have been working tirelessly for over a decade to protect and increase our tiger numbers, and ensure the continuity and preservation of this incredible species.
What does it take to work in tiger conservation? Three officers from WWF-Malaysia’s tiger conservation team share their insights.
The guardians of the forest
Wildlife rangers and anti-poaching officers put their lives on the line every day protecting our tigers. Lau Ching Fong, who leads the anti-poaching unit for the tiger conservation team loves that he can call Belum-Temengor Forest Complex (a tiger priority site in Malaysia) his workplace. However, working in the wild is far from just enjoying beautiful scenery and sprawling landscapes.
The illegal wildlife trade and poaching are the biggest and most critical threats to the survival of many species in the wild, including the Malayan tiger. Tigers are poached for various reasons, but alleged medicinal value and cultural reasons top the list.
The demand for exotic animals has caused overexploitation of species and pushed them to the brink of extinction. To highlight the seriousness of the issue, it was reported that parts from 103 tigers were seized in Peninsular Malaysia from 2000-2015 alone.
“We work day and night to keep the forest as safe as possible. Part of our job is to keep a lookout for poachers, both foreign and local. We also deactivate and remove snares in the forest, to ensure animals do not get caught in them,” shares Fong.
He then explains that the more an animal struggles to release itself when trapped in a snare set by poachers, the tighter the grip becomes. If not rescued, most of them die from their wounds and dehydration.
Between January 2016 and March 2017, 60 active wire snares were deactivated and removed from the forest complex by the team.
While the team doesn’t have the authority to arrest perpetrators, they do report and act as the eyes and ears for the authorities. How does one work days on end in the forest, just patrolling and removing snares?
“I think it all comes down to the genuine love and a sense of responsibility we feel for wildlife and the environment. This is not just about work, it concerns another life. It has been eight years since I started my career in conservation, and it still breaks my heart when find we find out another animal has died,” Fong adds.
A passion for data
Supporting the anti-poaching team in the field is the wildlife monitoring unit. In their line of work, data is the backbone for protection, projections and strategies.
Christopher Wong, the wildlife monitoring unit lead couldn’t agree more. Wong has worked with WWF-Malaysia for close to nine years, and a big portion of his work involves the use of camera-traps, a primary tool the team uses for data collection and monitoring within Belum-Temengor.
A camera-trap is basically an automated digital camera that is triggered every time an animal crosses its path. Photographic images are retrieved by the team, who then use the information to determine the presence of animals, and assess the population status of species like tigers.
“With tigers especially, camera-trapping has led to many breakthroughs in our conservation work. Being able to indirectly observe them through camera-traps allows us to improve our monitoring activities.”
“For example, we can track how many times a tiger has returned to the same site just by differentiating the individual tigers through their stripes. Tiger stripes are unique – much like our thumbprints. No two tigers are alike,” shares Wong.
To set up camera-traps, wildlife monitoring teams must trek in the wild to remote locations in search of trails likely to be used by tigers. These trails are the locations where camera-traps will be set.
After setting up these cameras, they typically return to each location every two to three months to retrieve the data, until the study is complete. The images are then analysed and used to facilitate the development of management recommendations and revision of tiger conservation strategies.
“We can learn a lot from the images we collect. In fact, there have been several times in the past few years where we’ve detected female tigers with their cubs. This is very encouraging for us, as it tells us that the tigers are breeding and there is still hope for the next generation,” Wong adds.
While camera-traps may have revolutionised the world of conservation, new and emerging technologies such as the use of drones now show potential to raise the bar for data collection and subsequent analysis.
For Wong, the greatest satisfaction and motivation comes from seeing data being translated into real, meaningful changes like implementation of policies and others.
“Knowing that our data and recommendations are creating better opportunities for the survival of our tigers makes everything worth it,” he says.
Orang asli – the conservation allies
The responsibility of tiger conservation doesn’t fall squarely on the shoulders of conservationists alone. In fact, its success is dependent on collaboration with all stakeholders. A key conservation ally is the Orang Asli community which lives in and around the Belum-Temengor Forest Complex. There are close to 6,500 indigenous people living in the complex.
Umi A’Zuhrah Abdul Rahman started working with indigenous communities almost 11 years ago when she joined WWF-Malaysia. She now leads the tiger conservation team’s community engagement efforts.
“You definitely need to be a people’s person for this job. It’s all about building trusting relationships and understanding the communities we work with. Every village I visit is different, and it’s up to me to connect with them on a personal level,” shares Umi.
Working closely with the community brings many wins for tiger conservation. For one, indigenous people know the forest better than anyone else, so tracking and patrolling becomes easier for field teams that employ them. It is also easier for them to monitor who goes in and out of the forest, and report any suspicious activities.
However, it is not always a breeze. Most Orang Asli villages are within the forest complex itself, which means Umi needs to be always prepared to work under harsh conditions and on flexible time. Working on weekends is not uncommon, where she speaks and engages with different communities.
“This is definitely a job that requires a lot of patience and perseverance, as getting through to people and connecting with them is the start of long-term collaborations. I think a driving factor for me is the passion I have for tiger conservation – if I didn’t think it was important, it would change the way I see things,” she reflects.
Together, anything is possible
Saving the Malayan tiger is not everyone’s cup of tea. It involves a lot of perseverance, passion and a profound love for animals and the environment.
Conservation is a collective and collaborative effort, involving NGOs, government, communities and the private sector.
For instance, WWF-Malaysia partners with Maybank Foundation who supports the tiger conservation programme, and is working together with the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (PERHILITAN) to enhance protection and monitoring of the tiger population and its prey.
For real change to take place, it needs to first start with public awareness, as our lifestyle choices determine what happens to these animals’ habitats.
What Malaysians can do to save the Malayan tiger
1. Educate yourself
Most Malaysians don’t even know that the Malayan tiger is critically endangered. Read more and educate yourselves on the current status of tigers in our country.
2. Volunteer with organisations working in tiger conservation
Do you have a particular skillset that can help with raising awareness or working on the ground with tiger conservationists? Get in touch with them, and explore opportunities to serve in your free time.
3. Report wildlife crime
It is an offense in this country to keep or trade protected species. Report wildlife crime by calling the Wildlife Crime hotline at: 019-3564194
4. Practise a sustainable lifestyle
Reduce your consumption of items which are derived from natural resources, to reduce pressure on the habitat of tigers and other wildlife.
5. Let decision-makers know your concern
Write in to your elected representative, government officials and even the Prime Minister to let them know you are concerned about tigers.
6. Celebrate Global Tiger Day
An annual celebration every July 29. Conservationists use this day to raise awareness, create conversations and encourage people to protect wild tigers around the world.
3 Leadership lessons Leaderonomics got from these tiger conservationists
Without passion nothing moves forward in the field of conservation. Working for an NGO means countless hours with minimal resources and non-profit oriented work and without love for their duty, these conservationists can never sustain themselves for so long.
It takes a good heart and mind to feel empathy. It takes a special heart and mind to feel the pain of other living beings. For these conservationists, they are terribly saddened when they see an animal dead, especially under their watch so they go the extra mile to ensure areas under their watch is well guarded.
3. Hungry to make a difference
It is a difficult job. It’s not glamorous. You don’t get to be fashionable and you do not have the comfort of an air-conditioned office space to work in. Yet, these individuals spend days, weeks and at times months in jungles, sleeping on hard ground, eating simple food and battling mosquitoes and insects – and possibly few other dangerous or venomous creatures – to do their job.
All because, they know they have the power to make a difference. For example, Fong and his team have pulled out 60 active wire snares and possibly saved the lives of 60 tigers in the process. That’s heroic to us.