Harimau Malaya, or the Malayan tiger, has been a national icon for decades.

So it was fitting when Rimau, a cute cartoonish version of the tiger, was chosen as the mascot for the recent KL2017 SEA Games (and the upcoming 9th Asean Para Games).

Perhaps the tiger brought us luck, for Malaysia came out tops at the SEA Games with 145 gold medals, our biggest haul ever.

Before this, the tiger has also been the proud symbol for the national football team, as well as companies such as Proton and Maybank. And of course, two tigers stand tall on our national Coat of Arms or Jata Negara.

But the real animal in the jungles of Malaysia has not been so fortunate.

In the 1950s, Malaya was thought to have as many as 3,000 tigers. By 2003, that number was down to 500.

Now, as few as 250 Malayan tigers may be left in our jungles according to current estimates.

In June 2015, it was moved from the “Endangered” to “Critically Endangered” category in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species

Poaching and the loss of their forest habitat have been major factors in this huge decline, according to WWF-Malaysia (World Wide Fund for Nature).

Even what forests we have left have been carved up into ever smaller pieces (forest fragmentation) through the building of roads and other developments.

If these threats are not reduced soon, it is highly possible that this magnificent animal will soon become extinct in this country.

WWF Malaysia CEO Datuk Dr Dionysius Sharma recently revealed that we are being quietly invaded by poaching syndicates from Indochina.

“Laos, Cambodia and possibly Vietnam are believed to have recently lost all their wild tigers due to the poaching crisis,” he said.

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Another tiger trap encountered by WWF patrols. Photos: WWF-Malaysia/Lau Ching Fong

“As their forests are being emptied, it is alarming that Indochinese syndicates are entering our forests in Malaysia to extract precious resources such as agar wood (gaharu) and wildlife, including tigers.”

Wildlife is the third most globally-traded illicit commodity after drugs and weapons.

Currently, poaching is the most urgent and critical threat to the survival of Malayan tigers in the wild.

From 2010 to 2013, more than 2,241 poacher traps and 1,728 illegal (poachers’) campsites in Malaysia were found by NGOs working on tiger conservation. And between 2000 and 2015, body parts from 103 tigers were seized locally.

We can do better

But it’s not all doom and gloom because other countries have shown that things can improve – if we set our minds to it.

Global Tiger Day on July 29 was declared at the 2010 St Petersburg Tiger Summit in Russia to create awareness on the alarming fact that 97% of the world’s tiger population had already been lost.

During the summit, a joint commitment dubbed TX2 was made to double the number of tigers by 2022, one of the most ambitious species-conservation goals ever set.

While tiger numbers are declining in South-East Asia, their situation is slightly better elsewhere.

In April, the number of wild tigers worldwide increased for the first time in conservation history!

Estimates of their numbers were revised to 3,890, up from the 2010 estimate of “as few as 3,200”. This was possible due to concerted efforts from governments, communities and NGOs.

Tiger conservation is being taken more seriously in Malaysia too.

On July 29, it was announced that the Royal Belum State Park in northern Perak will be designated as a key “recovery and conservation area” for tigers, which are facing extinction.

Malaysia is the first country in the region to do so, and it is supposed to follow the minimum standards of the Conservation Assured, Tiger Standards (CATS) in the effective management of the species.

Perak State Parks Corporation Acting General Manager, Noor Asmah Mohd Nawawi, explained that adopting CATS will bring long-term benefits for our tigers.

“It’s a new approach to tiger conservation, which focuses on setting standards for assessments and results. This will help those working with tiger priority sites to understand what to aim for, and which areas need improvement. Malaysia now joins the likes of Nepal, India, Bhutan, and Bangladesh, in protecting our tigers,” she said at a Global Tiger Day event in Ipoh, Perak

“As the first tiger recovery site in South-East Asia to be CATS registered, we are confident that ongoing conservation efforts in Belum-Temenggor will be strengthened significantly,” added Dionysius.

“When a country registers for CATS, it sends a strong message to the world [of] commitment to protecting tigers.”

Also present was Perak Environment Committee chairman Datuk Dr Muhammad Amin Zakaria, who said it was a privilege and responsibility for the state to conserve the species.

Dionysius said CATS was one of the many initiatives that had effectively made Belum-Temenggor a model site for conservation. He also hoped that the use of CATS could also spread to other parts of the country – not just in state parks but in forest reserves as well.

WWF-Malaysia and various government agencies are aiming for a “zero poaching” status for the Belum-Temengor Forest Complex by 2020.

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A tiger badly injured by a poacher’s trap.

(The Temengor forest reserve is still open to logging. It lies next to the Royal Belum State Park and is separated from it by the East-West Highway. Conservationists have long called for both forest areas to be conserved, not only for the rich wildlife there, but because they are crucial sources of fresh water for Perak.)

The concept of zero poaching is not new. In fact, Nepal has been able to achieve 365 days of zero poaching between 2011 and 2014.

While the focus is primarily on tiger conservation, it is hoped that other large mammals there will also gain protection.

Proposed actions

Earlier this year on July 11, it was agreed at a high-level dialogue in Ipoh that a secretariat – led by the Perak Economic Planning Unit – be set up to implement action plans related to wildlife poaching and conservation of tigers.

“We need to start with the Belum-Temengor forest first and from there, we will see what’s required to enhance our efforts. Our security and uniformed units are already working closely with Thai authorities on border patrols,” said Dionysius. Drones might also be used for surveillance, he added.

The agencies present during the dialogue included the police, army, Peninsular Malaysia Department of Wildlife and National Parks (Perhilitan), Forestry Department and the Perak State Parks Corporation.

The dialogue was also attended by the Sultan of Perak, Sultan Nazrin Muizzuddin Shah, who suggested that the Orang Asli be roped in for the zero poaching effort, as they would be most familiar with the jungle.

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One of the brutal animal snares found by WWF patrols in the forests of northern Perak.

“They would know the area well. Instead of engaging outsiders, why not utilise the locals?” he said.

Some of the proposed action plans include increasing patrolling and enforcement efforts; closing up and monitoring unused logging roads; setting up a specialised team to track down poachers and managing tiger habitats adequately.

Dionysius said, “We will need more intelligence gathering on poachers to identify hotspots to increase patrols there.”

It’s not just tigers that are being poached. Their food source – sambar deer – are also being hunted.

Apart from the Belum-Temengor forest, Dionysius added that tigers could also be found in the forests of Taman Negara and Endau-Rompin.

Perhilitan director-general Abdul Kadir Abu Hashim said they are looking into increasing the penalty for illegal poachers in the Wildlife Conservation Act.

“The maximum fine is RM500,000 but we are looking to increase it to RM1mil,” he said. “We are also looking to increase the jail term from five to 10 years and include whipping as punishment,” he added.

It’s hoped that these latest efforts to save our tigers will be serious this time. The Harimau Malaya is critically endangered and it will be a real shame if we allow these magnificent animals to slip into oblivion through our neglect.

Should that day come to pass and tigers no longer roam our forests, what will be the point of having corporate or football logos, or the national coat of arms, featuring the animal?

Hopefully, Rimau the SEA Games mascot will not be the last roar of the Malayan tiger.