How Laos Lost its Tigers
The last tiger in Laos likely died in terrible anguish. Its foot caught in a snare crafted from a simple and cheap motorbike cable, it probably tore off a leg and died from blood loss, or died of dehydration. Or maybe, in a desperate bid to free itself from a snare.
Perhaps the Indochinese tiger (Panthera tigris corbetti), a distinct subspecies, was able to free itself from the snare, only to have the wound fester and kill it in the end. Or and this isn’t impossible either, the last tiger was simply shot to death by poachers who then butchered its body and sold its parts in the illegal trafficking trade to feed a seemingly insatiable demand for tiger bits and bones for sham medicine or status symbols.
However it died, it probably wasn’t peaceful.
A new paper in Global Conservation and Ecology finds that the last tigers of Laos vanished shortly after 2013 from Nam Et-Phou Louey National Protected Area. And the scientists believe it was most likely a surge in snaring that did them in, despite large-scale investments in the park, relative to the region.
With the loss of tigers in Laos’s largest protected area, the tiger is most likely extinct in Laos, as it probably is in both Cambodia and Vietnam. That’s an area about the size of Myanmar that’s now bereft of its proper top predator.
One of the first tigers photographed during a baseline survey. This photo is from 2003 about ten years before tigers would vanish. Photo by: WCS-Laos.
The tiger isn’t the only victim: the researchers also believe Indochinese leopards (Panthera pardus delacouri) are extinct in Laos now, wiped out from Nam Et-Phou Louey and other protected areas by the same snaring crisis.
This tragedy is simply another sign of industrial-scale “empty forest” syndrome across Southeast Asia, as poachers with guns and snares continue to wipe out animal populations, targeting anything the size of a mouse or sparrow and larger.
In the early 2000s, conservationists saw Nam-Et Phou Louey National Protected Area as a major priority, given it still had populations of tiger, leopard and many other large mammals that had increasingly gone extinct across Southeast Asia. At the time, it was dubbed one of the most important tiger populations in the region.
In 2003 and 2004, conservationists believed there were at least seven tigers in Nam-Et Phou Louey and maybe up to 23. New conservation strategies, including increased law enforcement and working with local communities, were jump started in 2005. But by 2013, researchers found only two tigers on camera trap. And no tiger has been seen since.
“This represented a sharp decline and extirpation of tigers in Nam-Et Phou Louey in only 10 years,” said lead author Akchousanh Rasphone, with the Wildlife Research Conservation Unit, known as WildCRU, at the University of Oxford.
“We’ve looked at various factors for the decline, such as prey numbers and amount of guns confiscated in the park, and the only factor that seems directly related to the tiger decline was the exponential increase in snares,” she added.
Camera traps find no tigers or leopards
Rasphone and her colleagues systematically surveyed the park from 2013 to 2017 with camera traps in what they describe as the largest endeavor of its kind ever conducted in Laos.
Their survey found no leopards at all; the last one was recorded in 2004. And the last two tigers simply vanished after 2013, denoting they were most likely killed either by snare or gun.
When asked if they could have missed tigers on the camera traps, Rasphone said, “If tigers are using an area, then typically they’re easily photographed in cameras set along trails.”
An Indochinese leopard photographed in Nam Et-Phou Louey National Park. Poachers wiped leopards out of the park before tigers. This animal was photographed in 2003 and was probably one of the very last leopards in Laos. Photo by: WCS-Laos.
Tigers are massive, easily distinguished from other animals, tend to use well-trodden paths, and cover huge areas of territory, making photographing them far easier than many other more cryptic species on camera.
The only other place in Laos tigers were thought to maybe persist was Nakai-Nam Thuem National Biodiversity Conservation Area.
“Recent camera trapping in Nakai-Nam Thuen suggests that tiger, leopard, clouded leopard, and golden cats have now been extirpated from this protected area,” said a conservationist who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
So, tigers are very likely gone from Laos, just as they have recently been wiped out from Cambodia and Vietnam. Given all the attention and money for tigers, how did this happen?
What the #!*&*$ happened?
Jessica Hartel, the director of the Kibale Snare Removal Program in Uganda, told me in 2015 that snares are “the landmines of the forest.”
“Like landmines, snares do not discriminate, are virtually undetectable, and can cause irreversible permanent physical damage within a split second,” she said. “Like landmines, snares are unforgiving death traps that cause pain, suffering, and mutilation. Like landmines, snares are detonated automatically by way of pressure from the animals stepping into or through it.”
Big cats like tigers and leopards are “particularly vulnerable to snaring,” said Jan Kamler, co-author of the recent study also with WildCRU — even if snares are mostly set for bushmeat animals, such as deer and wild pigs.
“[Tigers and leopards] occur at relatively low densities to begin with (compared to prey species), and they have the widest ranging movements of all species,” Kamler wrote to me. “Consequently, even if snaring is stopped within a protected area, as long as snaring occurs along the boundary, then tiger and leopard populations may ultimately become extirpated.”
With only a handful of tigers left to begin with, it only takes a few encounters with snares to kill off an entire population. Ditto for leopards.
Hundreds of confiscated snares in Cambodia. These wire traps are decimating wildlife across Southeast Asia. They kill indiscriminately and cause incredible suffering to ensnared animals. Cheap and easy to make, snares are difficult for wildlife rangers to find and many parks have not adapted to this new threat. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler/ Mongabay.
Kamler theorizes that the reason leopards vanished a decade before tigers is that the presence of tigers — the apex killer in the park and known to harry other predators — forced leopards into the park’s buffer area. Here they more quickly succumbed to snares and guns that hadn’t as completely infiltrated the core area.
Research from last year in Biological Conservation found that wildlife rangers removed more than 200,000 snares from just five protected areas in Southeast Asia, including Nam-Et Phou Louey, over five years.
But Thomas Gray, the paper’s lead author and the science director for the Wildlife Alliance, told me last year that he believed even the best-trained rangers would only find a third of the snares planted in protected areas — and rangers in Nam-Et Phou Louey were not among the best, according to Gray in 2018.
“Snaring is very difficult to control because snares are cheaply made, and a single person can set hundreds and sometimes thousands of snares,” Rasphone said.
Today, millions of snares likely blanket Southeast Asia’s protected areas, indiscriminately wiping out wildlife until there is little left to kill.
‘Too little, too late’
Troy Hansel, the former Laos country director for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), said funding and resources for Nam-Et Phou Louey came “too little too late … to secure the tiger population.”
Headed by WCS Laos, conservation groups spent between US$150,000 and US$200,000 annually from 2009 to 2012, according to Rasphone. The money came from international donors such as the World Bank, USFWS, and the French Development Agency (AFD). While this may sound like a lot for a developing country, the money was meant to manage a national park more than half the size of Jamaica and covered in thick forest.
Rasphone says the money definitely helped stop gun-toting poachers — gun confiscations increased with the rise of funding — but did not “stop the exponential increase in snaring.”
When conservation actions really took off in 2005, conservationists had the ambitious goal of increasing tiger number by 50 percent within 10 years and eventually getting to a point where the protected area contained 25 breeding females—turning this park into a “source site” for Indochinese tigers, according to a 2016 paper in Biological Conservation.
Lead author of that research and also a former country director of WCS Laos, Arlyne Johnson, says the paper was intended to evaluate the program’s success or lack of it. It records how conservationists saw the sudden rise in snaring during that decade—and how it may have been a deliberate strategy by poachers to kill off the last tigers.
“The increased snaring likely resulted from local hunters changing techniques to more effectively target tigers,” Johnson and her colleagues wrote. “Snares were not common until Vietnamese and Chinese traders from outside the area began providing local hunters with this gear.”
While increased funding helped boost ungulate populations and curb hunters, the park needed to more than double the investment of funds even during peak funding in order to keep tigers safe, according to the study.
That kind of money never happened (this is hardly unique to Laos: conservation the world over is underfunded, under-resourced, and under-prioritized).
Johnson said that while snares definitely played a role in wiping out the park’s tigers and leopards, there were other problems: poachers were rarely arrested and convicted and, over time, funding declined.
“It has been very difficult to get enough funding to adequately support patrol teams,” said Paul Eshoo, who’s worked both in ecotourism and conservation in Laos. “As donors are not willing to support day-to-day operations and patrol staff salaries directly … and instead prefer to put most of their funds into livelihood programs.”
Even without tigers and leopards, Nam Et-Phou Louey National Park remains a hugely important protected area for rare and threatened species. This was the first ever photo of Owston’s palm civet, a species listed as endangered, in Laos. Photo by: WCS-Laos.
Other issues may have been more structural. For example, Laos does not have any career rangers.
According to Eshoo, patrols in Nam-Et Phou Louey were largely made up of a motley crew of government employees, volunteers, military, and villagers —but none of whom were career park rangers, a career which simply doesn’t exist in the country.
“They are changed often, and require training by the project when they arrive,” he said. Lack of expertise, experience and high turnover certainly hurt the chances of saving the park’s tigers.
“The management system in Nam Et-Phou Louey was and still remains one of the best in the country,” Eshoo added. “But, to protect a species like the tiger, which is highly threatened, requires A+ protection with a more professional and committed national parks system in the long-term.”
Investment still mattered
Conservationists, and journalists, can get blinkered by their obsession with tigers, but, in fact, even though the investment was “too late, too late” for leopards and tigers, it’s likely had a major role in maintaining other animal populations in Laos’s largest protected area.
Johnson said other species “definitely benefited” from tiger funding as her research in 2016 showed an increase in ungulates in the park. Meanwhile, many threatened Asian animals still inhabit the park, including dholes (Cuon alpinus), clouded leopards (Neofelis nebulosa), Asiatic black bears (Ursus thibetanus), sun bears (Helarctos malayanus), gaur (Bos gaurus), sambar deer (Rusa unicolor), Owston’s palm civet (Chrotogale owstoni), as well as several primate and otter species.
Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) once roamed the northern portion of park, but disappeared around a decade ago, though Rasphone says there was a potential footprints were found in 2015. It may be that a herd of elephants is migrating between the park and Vietnam – but conservationists just don’t know at this point.
The loss of leopards and tigers has restructured the park’s carnivore hierarchy to potentially benefit the next biggest carnivore: dholes.
Wild dogs with a badass reputation, dholes are considered endangered on the IUCN Red List, and number fewer than tigers worldwide.
“Dholes no longer have major competition for food and space, and their populations may benefit from that,” Kamler said, though he added grimly, “as long as snaring doesn’t eventually cause the extinction of this species as well.”
As for the Indochinese tiger, Kamler says the conservation focus must now turn to Thailand and Myanmar.
“If these last few populations are not protected with strong law enforcement, then the entire subspecies will go extinct.”
Currently, the Indochinese tiger is listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List, but an update is overdue; that assessment was done in 2010. Today, it may very likely be critically endangered. In 2010, conservationists estimated 20 tigers in Cambodia (now extinct), 20 in Vietnam (also extinct), and 17 in Laos (alas, extinct). Thailand and Myanmar remain the only countries that likely house any semblance of a reproducing wild population. At the time, researchers believed there may be 352 Indochinese tigers left. If today it’s below 250, it would qualify for critically endangered status.
“All protected areas in Southeast Asia should be especially vigilant towards the snaring crises in the region,” Kamler said, adding that the region needs “strong community engagement and education programs.”
He also calls for continuous monitoring via camera trap so conservationists and staff on the ground can catch these declines quicker.
Perhaps most vital, according to the anonymous source, is to increase the importance of conservation across the Laos government. They said that Nam-Et Phou Louey was never “seriously recognized” by the three provincial governments that overlapped with the national park, and the national government, due to the decentralization of protected areas, took little note.
“Protected areas and species conservation are not a high priority for the government,” the source said. “National protected areas are not given the same level of authority or respect as other agencies. Protected area managers do not have even an official stamp and have lower authority than district authorities.”
The source called on groups like the World Bank, Asian Development Bank and USAID to “encourage” the Laos government to support conservation and make much-needed structural changes.
“These species and habitats can bring wealth to the country if protected,” the source said.
Hasan Rahman, a tiger expert with WCS in Bangladesh, however, said a final component is essential for successful tiger conservation: “public support.”
“No amount of money, arms, ammunition, forest patrol, and law enforcement can really save any species for long period of time without public support,” he said. “It’s not that we don’t need all those, but the public ownership is the key. Not only support from the people living surrounding landscape, but also from the people of the entire region, and even the world is needed to save the most of the ‘charismatic’ species.”
Laos may have lost its tigers. But the potential for conservation there remains huge, as it does in Nam-Et Phou Louey National Protected Area.
And it’s not impossible, with far greater protection efforts across the region, that one day tigers and leopards could find their way back to Laos — assuming we can save them from extinction in the first place.
A photo of a tiger taken on the most recent survey, meaning this was one of the last tigers in Laos before it vanished. Photo by: Akchousanh Rasphone, WildCRU, and WCS-Laos.
Reprinted with permission from Mongabay, a US-based nonprofit conservation and environmental science news platform. Carousel photo by WCS-Laos