The Malayan tiger population is dwindling. PIC BY AIZUDDIN SAAD

KUALA LUMPUR: WITH an estimated population of only 200, the future looks bleak for the Malayan tiger.

If nothing is done, the apex predator, faced with a host of challenges, including poaching and loss of habitat, could be driven to extinction within three years, according to experts.

Efforts are underway to ramp up measures to protect the species.

Spearheaded by the Water, Land and Natural Resources Ministry, these initiatives include an unprecedented joint action force comprising the police and the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (Perhilitan) to prevent poaching and sale of protected wildlife.

Also in the works is increasing the maximum sentences for offences related to protected wildlife to a RM1 million fine and 10 years’ jail.

Water, Land and Natural Resources Minister Dr A. Xavier Jayakumar says tackling poaching and illicit wildlife trade tops the agenda.

The ministry, he says, will announce the joint action force involving the police and Perhilitan personnel.

“The police have given their strong commitment. It’s just a matter of time before we announce the Perhilitan-police joint action force.

“The inspector-general of police has been supportive of the idea and I’m looking forward to an appointment with him. We hope to launch the joint action force together, hopefully, before or on Tiger Day (July 29).”

He says the collaboration between the police and Perhilitan will resolve the latter’s limited enforcement power, on top of cutting off the poachers’ routes.

“For example, there is only one main road leading into the Royal Belum rainforest from Gerik (Perak), that passes the East Coast Expressway from Gerik to Jeli (Kelantan).

“If we can set up roadblocks along that route, which is the poachers’ gateway, that could severely limit their movements. The poachers will know that it is difficult for them to move forward.”

The government, he says, is also working with the United States embassy, which is funding a programme to train sniffer dogs to detect animal parts in the country’s
airports and seaports.

“We will be able to deter the illegal trade of animal parts (with the help of trained dogs). Malaysia is used as a transit point.

“What comes in, goes out. What we catch may just be the tip of the iceberg.”

He says the earlier proposals for Perhilitan to work with the armed forces to combat wildlife poaching and smuggling have been put on hold pending details, including funding.

It is understood that while the armed forces pay the servicemen’s salaries, the ministry will have to fork out the extra allowances for forest duty. This could reach up to RM20 million per year, including allowances for rations and equipment.

“There are signs that they (armed forces) are agreeable (to the cooperation), but we have to look at the funding, which is a huge amount,” says Jayakumar.

“We’ll have to get the funds
for this. This is where we are stuck,”

He says Perhilitan’s morale is high, given that the government is paying more attention to wildlife conservation. He says Op Belang, launched two months ago to protect the Malayan tiger, has borne fruit.

On April 19, Perhilitan’s Special Protected Area Response Team tracked down and nabbed two Vietnamese illegal hunters in Taman Negara Terengganu.

They were sentenced to two years’ jail and fined RM1.56 million after being convicted on 20 charges under the Wildlife Conservation Act 2010 for illegal possession of threatened and protected animal parts, including leopard, tapir and sun bear.

Such hefty fines could be a norm in future.

Jayakumar says his ministry plans to propose amendments to the Wildlife Conservation Act to double the fines and jail terms related to wildlife offences.

Section 68(2) of the act, for example, prohibits the hunting of totally protected wildlife without a special permit, and carries a fine of not less than RM100,000 and not more than RM500,000, and imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years.

“We are looking at increasing the maximum fine to RM1 million and 10 years’ jail for offences
related to protected wildlife.”

He says the bill, currently being reviewed by the Attorney-General’s Chambers, will be tabled at the next parliamentary sitting in December.

“We will table amendments to the act to make it stricter and more punitive.

“An offender can be charged separately for every single (wildlife) part, every piece of evidence, especially the animal parts.”

Jayakumar says besides the efforts of the agencies, the public must also play their role.

He bemoans the apparent “disconnect” between the branding of the Malayan tiger, often seen as a mark of superiority and toughness, and public perception and knowledge of the species.

He says the ministry is working with several non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to create awareness and to raise funds
to carry out awareness programmes.

“Among others, we’ve planned for a big theatre (performance), an art show, as well as the Tiger Day Run.”

Another initiative could see Gerik being transformed into Malaysia’s first “tiger town”.

Jayakumar says the “tiger town” concept will encourage people living in the area to learn more about the animal via educational activities.

“With the help of NGOs, we hope to turn Gerik into a tiger town so that we can change the perception of people living in the bordering states and nearby jungle communities to be more aware of what can be done.

“We want to educate the public. When people travel through Gerik, they will see murals on tiger conservation across the town.”

Jayakumar, however, laments the lack of public and corporate support for the “Save Our Malayan Tiger” campaign, which aims to raise RM2 million for conservation efforts.

“We have approached the corporate sector, and they are quite willing. But I hope more will come forward and set aside an amount as part of their corporate social responsibility programme.”

The funds, he says, will be used to increase patrols in areas where tiger poaching is rampant, such as in Taman Negara, the Royal Belum rainforest and the Endau Rompin National Park.

“Endau Rompin is well covered because the local community and NGOs, together with Perhilitan, are doing a very good job.

“It is a smaller area to cover compared with Taman Negara and Royal Belum.

“(Monitoring) Royal Belum is tough because of the porous nature of the border between Thailand and Perak.”

With the concerted efforts from all parties, Jayakumar hopes to see a 20 per cent increase in the Malayan tiger population within 10 years.

At present, there are only 180 to 200 tigers left in the wild.

The low numbers, Jayakumar says, pose a challenge to breeding and conservation efforts.

“When the tigers are small in number versus the vast forest area, it will be difficult for them to breed and multiply.

“If the number of tigers dips below 80, then we are doomed. However, we are doing the
best that we can, including increasing their food bank in the jungles.”

He says the authorities are rearing sambar deer, a primary food source of Malayan tigers, and releasing them into the wild.

“We rear deer in captivity and release them into areas where the tigers live. This will help them concentrate on one area.”