Tigers are on the razor’s edge of extinction in Malaysia, but Panthera’s multifaceted project in Taman Negara National Park is bringing back hope for these big cats. By exploring and integrating the many different elements of conservation, we are proving that protecting a catscape like this can have a wide range of benefits for wildlife and the communities they live alongside.
The Kenyir-Taman Negara Core Area on peninsular Malaysia lies within Malaysia’s national priority area for tiger conservation, which has been recognized as a globally important Tiger Conservation Landscape. One of the world’s oldest rainforests, the region overlaps the range of seven different wild cat species: tiger, leopard, clouded leopard, leopard cat, flat-headed cat, marbled cat and the Asiatic golden cat. This makes it one of the most cat-species-rich areas on the entire planet, and something we like to call a catscape.
Chief Scientist and Tiger Program Director Dr. John Goodrich says, “From a cat conservation perspective, catscapes are important because they harbor so many cat species and can help us understand how to better protect cats and foster conditions that promote cat diversity. These areas are also important to biodiversity at large, and protecting seven cat-species requires protecting a prey-base that ranges from the smallest vertebrates and even invertebrates, to some of the largest as well as the habitat that those prey depend on; thus, by conserving catscapes, we are protecting some of the key biodiversity hotspots around the globe.”
One of our focal landscapes within Southeast Asia is Taman Negara National Park, part of the central forest spine in Malaysia. This is the largest tiger recovery site in Malaysia (4,343 km2) and is classified as a Class 1 Tiger Conservation Landscape. Panthera Malaysia, led by Director Wai Yee Lam, works with the Department of Wildlife and National Parks to protect and monitor the Malayan tiger population and other wild cat species and their prey in the Kenyir-Taman Negara Core Area, which encompasses the northeast section of Taman Negara that lies in the State of Terengganu.
The park sits in the central forest spine that runs through the entire peninsula. This vast system, while interrupted in some areas by human development, is critical to the genetic flow of tigers and other wildlife. Luckily, its rugged terrain makes it a biological refuge for not only wild cat species, but also many others such as elephants, sun bears and rare bird species.
Panthera’s Conservation Action Executive Director Joe Smith calls Taman Negara the “place to be” on the peninsula. This highly ecologically significant area spans 4,000 km2 and is surrounded on all sides by logged areas cleared for palm oil and plantations. Unfortunately, the extensive development surrounding the park has caused some species, like the Sumatran rhino, to already disappear.
With the Javanese and Balinese subspecies long gone, the Malayan tiger is the most threatened tiger subspecies, with probably less than 200 left in the wild. Some predict it could go extinct within as little as five years if we do not act immediately. Despite this dire situation, Malaysia, with 44 percent of its peninsula still covered in forest, has the potential to pull off one of the greatest recoveries in tiger range.
Led by Panthera’s Tiger Program and Panthera Malaysia, we’re developing and consolidating conservation efforts for one of the most critically endangered tiger populations on the planet. One of the biggest threats facing this big cat is poaching. Poachers in this area are so elusive they’re known as “Ghosts of the Forest.” Many of these poachers are international, who come into Malaysia to hunt wildlife, then slip back over the border. These poaching incursions are defined by Regional Coordinator for Counter-Wildlife Crime in South and Southeast Asia Rob Pickles as “the combined events from when a poaching gang enters the park to when it leaves.”
Luckily for the wildlife of Taman Negara, Panthera Malaysia has joined with long-term partner Rimba to form a revolutionary anti-poaching team, with support from the Woodland Park Zoo. Many members of the team are from the Orang Asli indigenous community (whose name means original people). While government intervention has greatly changed their lives and social structures, the Orang Asli’s deep connection to the forest has led them to become expert trackers and critical pieces of our anti-poaching puzzle.
Dr. Goodrich called these deep forest counter-poaching operations “a game of cat and mouse, pitting the tracking skills of the patrol team against the wiles of a gang.” Further, he describes how “it can take weeks to locate a poaching gang in the deep forest and days more to extract arrested offenders. Gangs spend months inside the forest on poaching expeditions: deploying steel cable snares that target wildlife, especially large mammals. Policing the jungles of Southeast Asia for poachers is a daunting task; it presents an enormous challenge in manpower, logistics and endurance.”
This vigilance team has become a beacon of hope for the world’s largest big cats. Despite the pandemic restrictions that caused several of our trainings with international experts to be put on hold, we continued to hold our own refresher trainings at our field site to upkeep the patrollers’ knowledge and skills in tracking, close target reconnaissance, sign interpretation and navigation. Together, they’ve created a blueprint for fighting poaching around the globe and their deep-forest counter-poaching guide can be implemented to protect wildlife from Southeast Asia to Africa to the Americas.
Poaching incursions are down 89% from a 5-year average with only four detected in 2019. For the first time since the project began, provisional results for 2020 indicate no snares have been recorded in Kenyir, with only a single poaching incursion. Kenyir’s first Zero Snare Year corresponds with the outbreak of COVID-19 and significant enhanced movement control measures enacted by the Government of Malaysia and other ASEAN nations.
While we have been successful in preventing snare campaigns over the past year, the threat remains. Malaysian government movement controls have stopped some poaching, but as restrictions are lifted, we worry about an influx of poachers. As we continue our work in the region, Panthera remembers the importance of protecting this park as a catscape and an example for how to manage and protect other catscapes around the globe.
Panthera’s Tiger Program, and specifically the team members of Panthera Malaysia, aren’t backing down. Using scientific knowledge and cutting-edge technology paired with the historical excellence of our vigilance team members, we are working to protect tigers, wild cats and all wildlife in this magnificent landscape.