Why tigers in South-east Asia need a Vladimir Putin

A Cambodian tiger at the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center in Takeo province, Cambodia on July 28,2015.
A Cambodian tiger at the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center in Takeo province, Cambodia on July 28,2015.PHOTO: EPA
A wild tigress stalking the open meadows of Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve in central India.
A wild tigress stalking the open meadows of Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve in central India.PHOTO: NAVEEN PANDEY
A rare Amur tiger is released in a mountainous region of eastern Russia.VIDEO: WWF RUSSIA

BANGKOK - It's World Tiger Day on Wednesday (July 29) and the fate of the iconic Asian big cat remains uncertain, with remnant populations especially in South-east Asia threatened by a multi-billion-dollar trade that is wiping out forests and biodiversity.  

When India announced in January that its tiger population had gone up to 2,226, it deserved the congratulations that flowed. But even in India, the situation for tigers in the wild is not as rosy as it may seem.

The census figures were initially misreported as an increase of 30 per cent in tiger numbers. In reality, they reflected not so much a rise in population - though it is possible the population did grow to some degree - but more accurately the fact that a greater area was covered, which yielded more tigers than previously counted.

But the census also revealed some places where tigers had fallen dramatically in number.  Buxa Tiger Reserve in northern West Bengal state, for instance, yielded just three tigers - from a previously estimated population of 20.

In the same state, the vast mangrove swamps of the Sundarbans yielded a population of 76 tigers - down from a figure of 300. To be fair, the figure of 300 could have been nothing more than a boast by the state government - which is why the more scientifically rigorous result of 76 should be a serious wake up call.

Similarly in neighbouring Bangladesh, a previous survey in 2004 came up with 440 tigers. The most recent survey data released on July 27, gave the number as 106. Again to be fair, the previous survey must have been flawed and yielded a wrong number, experts say. It is difficult to accurately count tigers, they explain.

There are roughly about 3,000 tigers left in the wild; India has more than half of them. 

But tiger numbers remain small, with many in scattered remnant populations with no contact with other populations. Nevertheless, as in India, they are stable or recovering relatively well in Russia, Nepal and Bhutan. Bhutan on July 29 announced that it has 103 tigers, up from a previous estimate of 75. In neighbouring Nepal, the population is 198.

But the picture in South-east Asia is dismal.

There are virtually no tigers left in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam; very few in Thailand; and an indeterminate but most probably small number in Myanmar, Malaysia and Indonesia.

"There is a tiger crisis in South-east Asia'' says Singapore-based Michael Baltzer, leader of the World Wildlife Fund's Tigers Alive initiative which has the ambitious aim of doubling the number of tigers in the wild by 2022.

"Countries are not counting their tigers and are at risk of losing them if immediate action isn't taken,'' he said. "Political support is weaker and resources are fewer, while poaching and habitat loss are at critical levels. Until countries know the reality on the ground they can't take the appropriate action to protect their tigers."

Some experts say there is a risk that focusing on counting tigers is a distraction when their numbers are known to be precariously low anyway; instead, more resources should be mobilised to protect their habitat from further loss, and recover habitat that has already been lost.

True, says Mr Baltzer. But "we need to do it (the count) at least once; at this stage we need a strong baseline in order to move on," he said in an interview. "In Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand, we really don't have a clue how many tigers they have.''

Thailand is somewhat ahead of the rest of South-east Asia in tiger conservation, but only just. Tigers have died out from northern Thailand, and the only real future for them lies in the sprawling Western Forest Complex which borders Myanmar, experts say.

In Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos, hunting has not only killed tigers but also decimated the prey species they depend on to survive.

"There's a fear that this may be happening in Thailand too,'' said Mr Baltzer.

India, Nepal and Russia are far more invested in tiger conservation than those in South-east Asia. There is a dedicated budget for tiger conservation in India. In Russia, President Vladimir Putin has been championing the cause of protecting the species since 2008 when he personally tranquilised a wild Amur tiger in a much-publicised episode. The number of tigers has grown to over 500 from less than 40 in the 1940s.  

In the kind of practical initiative that needs to be duplicated elsewhere, a logging company, working with local authorities and the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society, agreed this month to begin dismantling abandoned logging roads currently being used by poachers to access tiger habitat in Russia's far eastern Terney region. It is one of the most biologically rich temperate forests in the world and home to around 30 per cent of Amur tigers.

The roads will be made impassable through just a few simple measures: removing bridges, digging trenches, and blocking them with rocks.

By contrast, in South-east Asia, conservationists are still trying to push back against a tidal wave of organised transnational wildlife crime which traffics endangered species mostly to markets in China.

They are also being swamped by powerful vested interests, from commercial logging and plantation companies to hydro power dams, and the ubiquitous roads that open up previously inaccessible wilderness.

One can't definitively say there are no more tigers left in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, because there is always a chance there are one or two individuals still surviving.

But the battle to save the tiger in those countries has already lost. The big cat is functionally extinct - meaning their numbers are so small that they do not meet and breed any more, so they may as well be extinct.

Disparate surveys in Thailand yield a patchy picture; tigers have reappeared in some protected areas, but have dwindled in others. And in Myanmar, where even less data exists, vast tracts of forest have been given out to private plantation agriculture, and towns on the border with China are lawless free-for-alls where endangered species are traded in violation of national and international laws and out of reach of enforcement.

On mainland South-east Asia, only Thailand, Malaysia - and to a yet unknown extent Myanmar - have some hope of saving the tiger.

But it is an increasingly slender hope.