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Page: Tracing Malaysia's Tigers

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07 September, 2010

Forgotten Tracks - Tracing Malaysia's Tigers

By Ummi Nadiah Rosli

(This is the first of a series of three articles on tigers in conjunction with Malaysia's 53rd Independence Day)

The roar of these magnificent creatures will soon be a mere echo of the past as their fabled ninth life has turned into their last plight for survival.

Since 1895, the King of the Jungle has been a national inspiration; its majestic figures gracing coat-of-arms and institutional crests, leaving an indelible mark on the nation s identity.

Representing strength and courage, the Panthera tigris, or Tigers, are a stoic embodiment of Malaysia s progress into the country that she is today.

Fast-forward to 2010 - there are as few as 3,200 tigers left in the wild, barely spread across 13 countries.

This is a drastic decline from the 100,000 wild tigers that roamed as recently as a century ago, having lost 93 percent of its original habitat to humans during the period.

Out of the nine tiger sub-species that existed worldwide, three have been lost to extinction the Balinese, Caspian and Javan. Research recognised the Malayan tiger as one of the six living tiger sub-species apart from the Amur tiger, Sumatran tiger, Bengal tiger, South China tiger and Northern mainland Indochinese tiger.

Some tiger populations could be pushed to the same fate, including the Malayan tiger (Panthera tigris jacksoni/Panthera tigris Malayensis). Recognised as the ninth sub-species in 2004, the Malayan tiger is unique to the Malay Peninsula.

While 3,000 Malayan tigers were estimated to exist in Peninsular Malaysia in the 1950 s, today, the number has dwindled to only about 500. With each Merdeka celebration, Malaysia s iconic species is at the point of no return. Will this year s Merdeka be any different for our tigers?

UNIQUELY MALAYSIAN

Found in Southern Thailand and Peninsula Malaysia, the Malayan tiger weighs around 120 kg for adult males and 100 kg for females, and male Malayan tigers are slightly bigger than their female counterpart.

According to Mark Rayan Darmaraj, Senior Field Biologist from the World Wide Fund for Nature(WWF)- Malaysia s Tiger Conservation Programme, based on average body weight the Malayan tiger is presumed to be the second smallest sub-species after the Sumatran tiger.

"The life span of these tigers in the wild could range from 10 to 15 years, while those kept in captivity could live up to 25 years. We know from the genetic analysis that the DNA of the Malayan tiger is distinct to other sub-species. Very few studies have been carried out on them in the wild, so biologically and ecologically, they are still very mysterious animals."

POPULATION UNCERTAIN

Listed as an Endangered Species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and in WWF s "Ten to Watch in 2010" list, preserving the existing tiger populations has become a race against time.

However, the fact that biological/ecological research on the Malayan tiger is still in infancy poses a challenge for conservation efforts.

For example, ecological information on dietary preference, demographic parameters, social structure, home range, and dispersal capabilities are all lacking.

Mark stated, "Currently we don t have much baseline information on tiger density in our forests, we don t know exactly how many tigers are there. Only when we start to figure out more about the ecological needs for tigers are in an area, can we provide tiger-friendly management guidelines in Malaysia."

One of the few available studies is conducted in Taman Negara National Park from 1999 to 2001 by Kawanishi et al. which found that tigers occur at very low densities of one to two tigers per 100 km .

Another study conducted by WWF between October 2004 and July 2005 at Gunung Basor Forest Reserve in Jeli District, Kelantan, a selectively logged forest.

Using camera-traps, findings from the study showed that 3 adult tigers were estimated per 100 km which indicated that tigers may be able to survive in selectively logged over forest and thus should not be regarded as having limited conservation value.

Additionally, preliminary camera-trapping analysis from a study recently conducted by WWF in the Temenggor Forest Reserve revealed that densities could range from 1 to 2 tigers per 100 km , further highlighting the importance of selectively-logged forests for tiger conservation.

Meanwhile, preliminary camera-trapping surveys under the Johor Wildlife Conservation Project in 350 square km of Endau-Rompin found a minimum of seven tigers.

"Although robust density estimates of tigers are not available, throughout Peninsular Malaysia, assuming that-density estimated for tigers are between 1 to 3 tigers per 100 km , as a rough guess esstimate based on available habitat there could potentially be around 500 to 1,500 Malayan tigers in the wild. A minimum of 500 tigers could have been a safe guess estimate sometime back but with so much of poaching happening and other threats such as habitat loss or fragmentation, it's quite a worrying scenario,," Mark said.

TIGER CORRIDORS

As tigers have large habitat requirements, the effects of land conversion in the rainforest, leading to fragmentation and isolation of forest reserves will severely affect the long-term viability of tiger populations across the landscape.

Thus, the Central Forest Spine (CFS) identified by the Department of Town and Country Planning under the National Physical Plan in 2005 is the backbone of the environmentally sensitive forest network.

The CFS, consisting of 51,000 km of contiguous forests, is divided into three landscapes which are the Main Range (20,000 km ), the Greater Taman Negara (15,000 km ) and the Southern Forest (10,000 km ).

The CFS provides linkages for ecological corridors to connect tiger populations across three core priority areas which are the Belum-Temenggor Complex (3,546 km ) Taman Negara (4,343 km ) and the Endau-Rompin Complex (2,389 km ).

These corridors serve as critical ecosystem areas, as well as habitats for tigers natural prey such as sambar deer, barking deer and wild boar.

THREATS TO THE TIGER

Although 45 percent of Malaysia is still forested, the country's apex predator is gravely threatened by habitat loss, forest fragmentation, prey depletion, poaching and retaliatory killing.

Accelerating deforestation, especially in environmentally-sensitive areas particularly in the states of Johor, Kelantan and Selangor for the establishment of timber latex clone plantations has contributed to the loss of many natural tiger habitats.

Furthermore, the clearing of forest areas to make way for monoculture plantations further reduces habitat quality for tigers. The building of roads, including highways and logging roads is another major threat to tigers and their prey as they provide poachers with easy access to once remote forests.

The Gerik-Jeli Highway is an example of how roads can fragment a contiguous habit, in this case, the Belum-Temenggor forest. Access roads into tiger habitats have also increased human-tiger conflicts.

Conflict areas such as in Pahang, Terengganu, Kelantan and Kedah are attributed to poorly-planned agricultural development and tiger prey depletion due to illegal hunting that in turn causes domesticated animal predation by tigers and retaliatory killings.

In June this year, a 3-year old Malayan tiger was shot by the country s security corps, RELA, after it was found looking for food in a village in Perak.

That s one less tiger in the wild, and a sad ending to the same creature that adorns our national emblems.

-- BERNAMA


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