Apologies to William Blake for borrowing the first line of his poem The Tyger which first appeared in print in 1794, for the title of this post. The poem, Blake’s most famous, must have done much to create fear in the minds of people of the tiger’s ‘fearful symmetry’.
For several weeks, tigers have been burning bright for me. Thanks to the Tiger Reintroduction Meeting organized by WWF Cambodia for members of the Mondulkiri NGO Network (MNN), one of the networks I’m advising. It was attended by members of the Tiger Working Group composed of Dr. Thomas Gray, WWF Tiger Consultant, Dr. Jimmy Borah, WWF Greater Mekong Regional Initiative Lead for Wildlife and Wildlife Crime, as well as representatives of the relevant Ministries of the Royal Government of Cambodia. The Natural Resource Management Committee members of MNN came in full force during the meeting.
Like most wildlife, it seems that the tiger is a misunderstood animal. But their diet is not composed of humans as many are wont to believe. There are fairly good reasons for fear of tigers. They are the largest of the cat species, the fastest, and arguably the fiercest since they hunt alone and are able take on bigger animals, like elephants, single handedly. They are the real King of the Jungle since lions mostly live in savannas.
As late as the 1990s, tigers roamed around the Eastern Plains Landscape (EPL) of Cambodia. There was a report that as much as 200 tigers were being poached annually at that time, contributing to the sweeping decline of the tiger population in the area. Reduction of tiger prey density due to poaching and decline of habitats also contributed to their decline. Tigers are killed for their fur and every part of their body is used in Asian medicine for all sorts of maladies with no scientific evidence of its curative properties. The website of WWF Malaysia says that ‘there are probably more tigers on the shelves of pharmacies and medicine stores than in forests’.
Due to the significant decline of tiger populations, it has been placed in the endangered species list. In Cambodia, it is found to be ‘functionally extinct’, meaning there are not enough of them to breed and survive. Only two of them have been photographed from 2005 to 2007 and there have been no sightings since then. This might mean that tigers no longer exist in Cambodia.
As vegan I don’t want to talk about the ecosystem benefits and services of tigers or any specie for that matter. I do believe that all species have the right to exist in their habitats, be left as they are with their inherent natural value. As an environmentalist though, I need to be able to articulate the importance of wildlife, and in this case, why tiger reintroduction is so important.
Tigers are apex predators. Being on top of the food chain, they play a significant role in the balance of forest ecosystems. Because of this they are referred to as umbrella species, which are selected as basis for conservation decisions. The protection and conservation of these species and their habitat also protects other species. Thus tiger protection also safeguards their prey and the forest ranges where they live. In Mondulkiri, Cambodia, this means protection of elephants, gaur, banteng, sambar, red muntjac, and wild pig, among others. Other non-tiger-prey species, as well as forest flora are indirectly protected.
This brings me to another issue much close to my heart, climate change mitigation and adaptation. Protecting tiger ranges in Cambodia also means preservation of the Eastern Plains which are being threatened by economic land concessions (ELC). Beyond political territories, tiger corridors across the Greater Mekong region will be protected too and there are already initiatives for inter-country cooperation. This is clearly a climate change co-benefit of the tiger program. Add to these are the socio-cultural and economic benefits including sustainable livelihoods, conservation tourism, preservation of indigenous cultures, among others.
A 2009 survey revealed global population of tigers in the wild to be very low at 3200. In an effort to address this, 13 tiger range countries (India, Nepal, Russia, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Lao PDR, and Vietnam) have come together in the 2010 Tiger Summit where they committed the Global Tiger Recovery Program that aims to double the tiger population in the wild by 2022. This goal came to be known as TX2 or #DoubleTigers.
There seems to be some criticism of tiger reintroduction in ranges where they no longer exist. It is said to be a costly and tedious program, with no assurance of success. But the incremental benefits of the tiger reintroduction program are certainly worth it. So I fully support all efforts on this, and fervently hope that the enabling conditions will be available for tigers to be reintroduced back in the Eastern Plains of Cambodia. Dr Borah, in one site visit to the EPL in Mondulkiri said that there is ‘hope and potential’ for reintroducing tigers. I’m happy for the efforts of the Royal Government of Cambodia, WWF and other NGOs to help realize the TX2 goal. However, there is still much to be done.
Twice in the last few weeks, I joined colleagues in short visits to view the Sea Forest. I thought that not very long ago, tigers and their prey use to roam within those evergreens. I do hope that in the near future tigers will burn bright in the consciousness of Cambodians. It is critical for the success of the tiger re-introduction program that Cambodians feel the need to the protect tigers that will be reintroduced in the wild. I think the goal should be to make the tiger a source of national pride and thus worthy of protection. It’s quite tricky since nobody knows if the last photographed tiger in 2007 is still alive. And how will the Cambodian Government animate the imagination of the people and inspire them to protect tigers if they no longer exist in these forests? I will write my thoughts about this in another blog post soon.
Know more about tigers
To learn more about tigers, download this tiger fact sheet. To know more about populations in tiger range countries, download the summary of the tiger census. Read this link to know more about tiger reintroduction in Cambodia. And read this article for some good news on doubling tigers in the wild. For updates, you can also follow @WWF_tigers on twitter. You can also help bring the conversation forward by using #DoubleTigers in your social media posts.