Wild Tigers in Asia: An Update

As now-rare megafauna at the top of the food chain, the presence or absence of tigers – strikingly beautiful and endangered – in forest ecosystems throughout Asia can tell something about the state of the ecological health of various national parks and wildlife sanctuaries. They are also an indication of the effectiveness of police enforcement, habitat destruction, and, often, corruption.

They can tell us if an ecosystem is functioning the way it should, if law enforcement and park officials are up to task, and they can indicate the degree of crime and corruption in and around protected areas, crime that is often trans-national and runs globally into the tens of billions of dollars. In short, tigers are not just big sexy cats, something to gush over and romanticize about. They symbolize the integrity of the country.

Tigers prowl what remains of some of Asia’s forest blocks from Sumatra to Russia to Nepal, and their status varies greatly between countries. Nepal, one of the poorest countries in the world, has managed to nearly double the number of its wild tigers in the past 10 years, and it is the first tiger range country to meet TX2 target set at the St. Petersburg tiger summit hosted by Russia in 2010. How did Nepal accomplish this, especially when it neighbors China, the largest consumer of tiger parts?

The World Wildlife Fund explains: “The success in Nepal has been largely attributed to the country's political commitment and the adoption of innovative tools and approaches towards tiger conservation.” Amazingly, Nepal hasn’t seen a single rhinoceros poached in the past five years. The country has a political commitment based on recognition of the national importance of having tigers in the wild, which also draws ecotourists to places like Royal Chitwan National Park and Bardia National Park—as well as local community buy-in for conservation initiatives.

Most local Nepalese simply don’t want to kill tigers, not for money, not for anything. Whether this is a result of Buddhist beliefs, cajoling by NGOs, government outreach, personal enlightenment, or a combination of them all, is not completely clear, but the fact is that Nepal’s efforts to conserve its wild tigers are world-class, ditto for rhinoceros.

Another small Himalayan Kingdom, Bhutan, appears to be punching above its weight in tiger conservation ring as well. In camera trap footage that stunned scientists, tigers were photographed at over 4,000 meters, sharing the alpine country with snow leopards – perhaps the only place in the world where they are sympatric. Local and foreign conservationists who have been working in the country for decades were less surprised by this finding.

Bhutan has, through effective conservation, doubled the numbers of tigers in its Manas National Park, and tigers and other wild cats are being found lower-priority forest concession blocks outside of national parks such as Wangdue Phodrang and Trongsa, indicating strong overall ecological health in the kingdom despite environmental pressures such as dam-building. Tigers mingling with snow leopards and yetis, tigers doubling in Manus, and tigers spreading into unprotected areas: the top carnivore of Asia is burning bright in Bhutan.

That is about the end of the good news. India borders both Nepal and Bhutan, but the picture is nowhere near as rosy. It is estimated that tiger poaching has increased by 63 percent in India over the past few years, thanks to demand from neighboring China. India has been fighting hard to save its tigers, but demand for tiger parts keeps increasing. Nonetheless, some tiger reserves such as Ragthamore have reached their carrying capacity for tigers and the parks need to relocate some of the great cats to other reserves. If Cambodia moves ahead with its plan to reintroduce tigers to its Eastern Plains, those tigers will likely come from India’s Jim Corbett National Park. Manas National Park is one possible bright spot. Tigers have been recorded moving back and forth between Manas India and Manas Bhutan in response to violence, poaching, and political upheaval. These sister parks of the same name have allowed tigers to hang on thanks to their transboundary nature. Tigers also appear to be breeding in far-flung Namdapha National Park in the northeast in Arunachal Pradesh—a province, incidentally, claimed by China.

Next door in Bangladesh there is cause for concern as well. The Sundarbans is the largest mangrove forest in the world, and it has long been known as the great haunt of man-eating tigers where locals have long donned masks on the back of their heads to fool tigers, which typically don’t attack humans head-on unless it is a mother with cubs. Tiger poaching is on the rise and some say that the population is down to 100 or fewer, a figure which, if true, would constitute a precipitous decline. A Sundarbans “cross-border” coal power plant in the Bangladesh side of the mangroves within a stone’s throw of prime habitat threatens this vital tiger population, as well as other wildlife such as river dolphins and crocodiles.

Yet in forgotten corners of the country tigers persist, and other species listed by the IUCN as Critically Endangered such as the Chinese pangolin continue to hang on in isolated pockets as well. But overall the environmental picture in Bangladesh is sobering, with climate change threatening coastal villages and Rohingya refugees from Myanmar putting additional stress on the environment.

In Southeast Asia, in Sumatra’s Riau province a pregnant tigress got caught in a pig trap last month and died of her injuries, and the two cubs in her womb perished with her. Earlier this year up in North Sumatra villagers killed what they suspected was a “shape-shifting” or “were-tiger” (like the Werewolf). Yet as dire as environmental news often seems to be about this singular island, tigers have been found outside of protected areas, and in tiger “strongholds” like Bukit Barisan Selatan in South Sumatra, tiger numbers might actually be increasing. However, with a Chinese-backed dam going up in Batang Toru, another important Sumatran tiger habitat, and with deforestation on the uptick, as well as Chinese demand for tiger parts in the North Sumatran capital of Medan, the fate of the Sumatran tiger far from certain.

Across the Strait in Peninsular Malaysia a team of six Vietnamese poachers were arrested with tiger and clouded leopard skins, and local farmers and poachers alike are reported to be after Malayan tigers as well. A friend who works in another Malaysian protected area near the Thai border said Vietnamese poachers are all over the peninsula, and that one was recently caught with 180 bear paws. These tenacious Vietnamese are said to camp out for up to six months in the jungle to nail their main quarry – the Malayan tiger, which is its own sub-species.

Economic development has been occurring at a breakneck pace in Peninsular Malaysia, and many of these projects are highly destructive to the natural ecology of this region. However, there could be a ray of hope in the dark, as Malaysian PM Mahathir shut down several key Chinese infrastructure plans, as Asia Sentinel reported this year.

The last tiger of Singapore was killed in the 1930s, and it is interesting to note that into the early 20th Century tigers could even be found on Pulau Ubin, an island off eastern Singapore (see linked text).

Some good tiger news can be found in Thailand. Huai Kha Kaeng Wildlife Sanctuary, arguably the most important core section of the sprawling Western Forest Complex, still swarms with tigers, and tigers are still hanging tough over in the Eastern Forest Complex. Nonetheless, infrastructure projects in both the Western and Eastern forest complexes will add pressure to these vital Indochinese tiger populations.

Furthermore, the discovery of 40 frozen dead tiger cubs in Kanchanburi province caused a public outcry. Overall, the tiger picture in Thailand is mixed, but nonetheless the kingdom remains the best hope for tigers in Mainland Southeast Asia.

Next door in Myanmar the overall picture is murkier. Armed conflict between the national army and ethnic groups remains throughout the country but in particular the long border with China and Thailand poses a serious threat to tigers and other wildlife. Tigers persist up north in Htamanthi Wildlife Sanctuary, but the Hukawng Valley, which was established with help of the late big cat expert Alan Rabinowitz and hailed as the world’s largest tiger reserve, has seen its tiger numbers drop sharply as a result of gold mining, poaching and internally displaced people due to armed conflict. Three tigers were said to have been recently poached in the proposed Lenya National Park down at the southern tip of the country; the driver in the getaway car was apparently apprehended while the two poachers were able to flee into the forest.

No one knows for sure just how many tigers persist in Myanmar, but the overall trend is likely a significant decline. Nonetheless, Myanmar has vowed to “take a hard line” on wildlife trafficking.

Tigers are extinct in Indochina, having been wiped out from every protected area in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, yet carcasses keep turning up in Vietnam and Laos. These are most likely coming from secret farms in-country or from illicit tiger farms in Thailand, including the Tiger Temple Cave of Kanchanaburi province. Cambodia has plans to reintroduce tigers to either its Eastern Plains or to the Cardamom Mountains in the southwest of the country, and the Prime Minister himself supports this plan.

The tigers would likely come from India, as noted above, but controversy surrounds this endeavor. Is Cambodia really ready to have tigers again? Can it protect them? If having tigers once again within its borders really creates a sea change for environmental protection in Cambodia then it’s probably worth it.

China itself is the vortex into which virtually all Asian wildlife is sucked into. The South China Tiger sub-species in Yunnan and neighboring southern provinces is now extinct, with a farmer having snared and consumed the last one in 2009. A handful of tigers hang on in Tibet, and Siberian tigers are repopulating northeastern China, crossing over the border from Russia. In fact, China is considering the establishment of a whopping 6,000 sq. km protected area for Siberian tigers and Amur leopards in Jilin province.

If this vast protected area becomes a reality it would be a major contribution to tiger conservation. Having said that, China needs to crack down on its tiger farms (and bear bile farms), and put an end to the illegal importation of tiger parts from abroad, easier said than done.

Russian and foreign scientists have been working together to protect Siberian tigers in Russia’s Far East, and with some success. Siberian, or sometimes called Amur, tiger populations are more or less stable in this far-flung corner of Russia, though threats remain as always, not least of all because of the long border shared with China in this region.

Russian President Vladmir Putin is himself a big fan of tigers, and “Putin’s tigers” (tigers whose conservation he was directly involved in) were recently sighted, adding a sense of hope for the species.

No one knows for sure if Siberian tigers persist in North Korea, though a conservationist who works in Russia’s Far East says tiger tracks have been seen coming in and out of the isolated country, and that at the very least tigers transit through North Korea. There has also been speculation that a small group of Siberian tigers hang on with in the DMZ, though nobody knows for certain. Tigers have long been extinct in South Korea. On a final country note, Kazakhstan says that it is interested in reintroducing tigers after a 70 year absence.

Tigers are among the largest and most fabulous land mammals in the world. They take the longest to evolve, becoming a kind of Michelangelo of evolution, and since they come into direct conflict with humans, they (and large predators in general) are usually the first species to be driven to extinction. All tigers are being relentlessly persecuted throughout their range today, and they are being pushed to the edge of extinction so fast that jaguars from South American countries are being hunted as a supplement in one of the most perverse feedback cycles imaginable. The Bali, Javan, South China, and Caspian tigers have already been hunted into oblivion, and Indochina has lost all of its tigers. It wouldn’t take too much more pressure to push the Sumatran, Malayan, and Indochinese tigers over the edge, and after that, the rest would likely be rapidly lost to rapacious hunters.

Can governments find the will to put a stop to this? How much integrity to governments have? Can the people get behind it? What can the NGOs do? These will be the main questions that inform the story of survival or extinction of wild tigers in the 21st Century.

Gregory McCann is the Project Coordinator for Habitat ID and the author of the book Called Away by a Mountain Spirit: Journeys to the Green Corridor. You can support his conservation projects in Sumatra and Cambodia here.