Malaysian Wildlife Under Threat

Recently a tiger walked down the main thoroughfare of Kampung Besul (video here), a village in the north coastal state of Terengganu, sending villagers fleeing in all directions. The cat, dubbed the “friendly tiger” because it did no one any harm, later died of canine distemper disorder, which probably explains why it “went tame” and strolled through the town.

Malaysia is one of the most biodiverse countries on earth, and the rain forests of Peninsular Malaysia, along with those of southern Thailand, are the oldest on the planet. If anything, the death of the cat is emblematic of the peril to the country’s quickly-vanishing wildlife as urbanization, poachers and other problems eat into not just the tigers’ habitat but create a wide range of problems for other species as well.

The spread of canine distemper disorder into the wild cat population is very bad news on its own. A deadly virus that attacks the respiratory, gastrointestinal, and nervous system, it is often spread to wild cats and dholes – wild dogs -- in Asia from the feces left behind from hunting dogs and domesticated dogs which wander into wildlife habitat. According to another report, two tigers were seen prowling around the village, with a pregnant woman claiming a big cat chased her for 300 meters while she was riding her motorbike. Apparently one of the two was caught, later dying of distemper. The other escaped. It is still being sought.

Experts are predicting that the Malayan tiger could be extinct in two to three years, and so grave is the threat to the majestic sub-species that the Department of Wildlife and National Parks and police force said it would focus new efforts on fighting tiger poachers. The leadership of the Terengganu government promises stiffer penalties for poaching, and the state of Pahang is nearly finished creating its first tiger conservation center.

Making matters worse for Malayan tigers, infamously tenacious Vietnamese tiger poachers have been caught hunting in Peninsular Malaysia’s national parks, having been known to camp out for up to six months in Malaysian jungles in search of their quarry, which include tigers, sun bears, and other large game.

Speaking of sun bears, 27-year old Malaysian pop singer Zarith Sofia Yasin was arrested for keeping one as a pet, though she claims she thought she was rescuing a roadside dog, not illegally keeping a protected species. Perhaps not wanting to be outdone by the tigers and orcas of Terengganu—which made headlines after making their first Malaysian appearance in the state’s waters—a trio of sun bears marched into a village, another wildlife sighting that sent residents scattering. One of the bears ended up in a trap.

The jungles of Peninsular Malaysia are also home to the highest concentration of melanistic or “black” leopards in Asia, a gorgeous cat earlier described by hunting guide and author Charles Shuttleworth in his 1965 book Malayan Safari: “With all the beauty of the tiger, he has none of its nobility. There is a cold, brutal malignity about him not present in the larger feline. He kills wantonly and cruelly, and it seems as if nature, in giving him his black pelt, endowed him also with a black cruelty of soul.”

However, logging activity has turned the sublime Sungai Lasir waterfall—one of the black leopard’s favorite haunts—into a mess, with once-crystal blue waters now churning up mud and stones.

Meanwhile in Sabah state in East Malaysia, a juvenile clouded leopard was captured by authorities after it had strayed into a village, where authorities feared it would harm residents (unlikely) and livestock. Vigilant night patrols were conducted to safeguard villagers from the cub, which was seen with a chicken in its mouth before it retreated into a nearby forest with its dinner. Locals speculated that the cub had been somehow separated from its mother. It will be translocated to a forest reserve on Sabah’s east coast.

Elsewhere in Sabah, orangutan population numbers have dropped by 30 percent near oil palm plantations, but they are holding steady in formal protected areas. Malaysia’s first pangolin research center is to open in Sabah, and Sandakan marine police confiscated 7,000 turtle eggs in one sweep, though the eggs are believed to have come from the Philippines. A shipment of 10 elephant tusks intercepted in Indonesia came from five pygmy elephants in Sabah, which could be a sign of a very worrying trend.

The Bornean rhinoceros in Malaysia was hunted to extinction long ago, with Chinese demand for its horn being the primary driver of this dark-skinned and hairy rhino’s demise.

Malaysia, however, is not alone in this dreadful business. A recent damning report reveals that of 100,000 species studied, there has been “zero improvement” to their status in the wild, meaning that from ocean floors to jungle canopies to snowy alpine peaks and indeed to the skies above it all, a lot of wild creatures have it very bad in the Anthropocene Era.

Compounding the issue, a new UN report found that illegal wildlife trading syndicates are flourishing in Southeast Asia. The Bach brothers, who operate out of Thailand and Vietnam, are among the most notorious, and they escaped justice recently in a Bangkok court. And if the widespread demise of a variety of species and the spread of illegal wildlife mafias weren’t enough, there is the old issue of the spread of oil palm plantations across the region, which threaten to gobble up the last of Malaysia’s protected areas.

Alarmingly, researchers from Purdue University have published a report stating there really is no such thing as sustainable palm oil, and that ‘certified’ palm oil may actually destroy more orangutan and tiger habitat than non-certified.

However, Robert Hii of Friends of Borneo offered me a different perspective: “I'd say that we have not really seen the potential of certified palm oil. The certification we're familiar with is the RSPO which has only been able to certify 20 percent of global production. The national certification schemes like Malaysia's MSPO has intriguing potential to achieve more as 100 percent of palm oil operations are required to be certified.”

One can only hope that future reports about tiger, clouded leopard, and sun bear sightings are not due to habitat loss, the spread of disease from domesticated animals, and from the illegal pet trade. The Russians say “hope dies last,” but hope is in short supply for those who are paying attention in the Anthropocene.

Gregory McCann is the project coordinator for Habitat ID and the author of Called Away by a Mountain Spirit: Journeys to the Green Corridor, available on Kindle for US$4.95 through Amazon.