IN the 1950s, more than 3,000 tigers lived and ranged across the jungles of Peninsular Malaysia. As of 2019, it is estimated that fewer than 150 can be found in the wild.
The Malayan tiger has been listed as critically endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, the world’s most comprehensive inventory of the conservation status of species. It faces challenges on two major fronts: loss of habitat through deforestation and poaching.
The tiger has become a national symbol, appearing on the coat of arms, in the logo of Malaysian institutions like Proton and Maybank and as a nickname for Harimau Malaya, the national football team.
Once upon a time, more than 90% of Peninsular Malaysia was carpeted with jungles and forests. Today, according to the Forestry Department, less than 45% of land remains covered.
Malaysian jungles used to be connected from the southern tip of the peninsula all the way up to the border of Thailand. However due to deforestation, what was once a long corridor that allowed tigers the liberty to range across the entire length of the country, has become a series of islands, shattered and isolated by logging paths, highways, plantations and more.
These have forced animals into smaller and smaller spaces of land, making it ever more difficult for them to survive. The destruction of the forest means a shortage of food and prey as well as loss of shelter for tigers. The Sambar Deer, the Malayan tiger’s primary food source, has also been listed as a vulnerable species on the IUCN Red List since 2008, with populations declining due to hunting, industrial exploitation of the jungle, and loss of the vegetation which they feed on.
Initiatives like the Central Forest Spine have been put in place in an attempt to reconnect the jungles of Malaysia, but evidence suggests deforestation and logging are still occurring within these areas.
In May this year, two Vietnamese poachers were fined RM1.56mil, the largest sum yet for a wildlife crime. They were also sentenced to two years in prison, after having been convicted on 20 charges. Among their loot were believed to be the parts of two Malayan tigers.
Tiger parts are some of the most coveted in the world; every part of their body is in high demand. Their meat is consumed as a delicacy, their skin, skull, claws and teeth are traded as trophies and their bones, blood and sexual organs are desired for their mythical medicinal qualities.
The illegal wildlife trade rakes in anywhere from US$7-23bil a year according to a 2016 United Nations estimate. It’s no wonder that tigers are facing challenges especially given the access foreign poachers have through the northern border.
Although the situation may currently seem dire, it’s important not to lose hope. Two NGOs – Rimba and Rimau – are actively working in areas ranging from Belum to Tasik Kenyir to send people into the forest to remove snares and track poachers. However, more rangers with the authority to arrest poachers and deter them from entering our forests are needed.
These organisations are also committed to educating all levels of the population, from young children all the way through to politicians. There is a desperate need to embed core values within our society that teach people to treasure the tiger as a symbol of national heritage and to cherish the forests and jungles we are so fortunate to have here in Malaysia.
Among the actions you can take is to educate yourself on the state of the forests in Malaysia. Gain an appreciation for these places – they are part of a crumbling national heritage and should be treated as such. Then, spread the message by influencing your communities, families, schools and workplaces.
If you are Malaysian, investigate the stance of your politicians, so you might hold them accountable. Last year, a coalition of 20 NGOs appealed for politicians to include environmental issues in their political agendas.
Even if we make a great, concerted effort, reversing the current trend of tiger decline in Malaysia is a battle that will require tremendous luck and persistence. If nothing is done, we can expect the extinction of the Malayan tiger in the wild by 2022.
There may come a time when the only place our children will be able to see the Malayan tiger – symbol of courage, strength and freedom – will be behind bars.
THE MALAYAN TIGER