Tiger numbers in all 13 tiger range countries in the world fell steadily for decades – until 2012.

(See story on the Malayan tiger’s numbers here.)

In 1970, tigers numbered some 40,000 around the world; the number then plummeted to about 3,200 in the 2010s and three subspecies – the Balinese, Caspian and Javan tigers – became extinct.

However, in 2012, Bengal tigers in Nepal and India increased in number, adding to an estimation of some 3,900 animals globally.

“India has managed to increase its numbers. Because India has in place very, very strict and good measures,” says Norizan Mohd Mazlan, WWF- Malaysia’s Head of Conservation for Peninsular Malaysia (Terrestrial Conservation).

The small Himalayan country of Nepal managed to almost double its tiger population to 235 wild tigers in 2018 from just 120 in 2009, putting it on track to becoming the first nation to see such an increase since 2010.

The good news is a result of Nepal implementing better protection for the animals, including raising the number of rangers monitoring poaching.

Poachers are the biggest threat to the Malayan tiger in the wild

Close-up of a paw of the tiger pictured above. Wildlife officers are removing a wire from the trap that had cut deeply into the tiger’s forelimb.

According to data from India’s National Tiger Conservation Authority, tiger deaths numbered 100 last year, an improvement from 115 deaths in 2017 and 122 deaths in 2016.

So, should Malaysian authorities look towards Nepal and India for its all-important fight against the dwindling numbers of the Malayan tiger?

With almost all its body parts – including even its whiskers and fat! – of some value to the Chinese traditional medicine market, the remains of a tiger may sell for up to US$70,000 (RM290,000). A pelt can be worth US$35,000 (RM145,000).

That is a lot of illegal profit for poachers, who mostly infiltrate into Malaysian borders from Indochina.

“Poaching is the number one threat to our tigers besides forest fragmentation and degradation, and habitat loss,” says Norizan, adding that it not only threatened the big cats but also their prey such as the sambar deer, the gaur and even the kijang.

While foreign poachers from Indochina – Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam – mostly target tigers to supply the lucrative Chinese market, Norizan says locals tend to go after the prey for exotic meat, especially during festive seasons.

“So there’s a slight difference, but we believe that there are some local people acting as intermediaries as well (for the foreign poachers),” she says.

Unfortunately, Norizan says the methods employed by these poachers are totally indiscriminate, as they lay snares that trap other animals apart from the tigers.

Perhilitan’s (Wildlife and National Parks Department) statistics show that almost 3,000 snares were destroyed in 479 operations carried out between 2014 and July 2018; the department has vowed to increase penalties for poachers in an amendment to the Wildlife Conservation Act.

Last year, Water, Land and Natural Resources Minister Dr Xavier Jayakumar told reporters during a Global Tiger Day event that he was seriously considering bringing a shoot-on-sight policy against wildlife poachers to the Cabinet for deliberation, adding that he had also instructed his officials to immediately have a meeting between the army, police and Perhilitan on collaborative efforts.

However, there is, as yet, no word from the ministry on any extra deployment of anti-poaching personnel. The minister declined to comment for this article.

On its part, WWF-Malaysia launched Project Stampede in July last year, aimed at enabling more patrol units, comprising mostly orang asli, to sweep the forest and remove snares as well as provide information on poaching.

“We currently have 10 patrol teams comprising at least 50 members within the Belum-Temengor Forest Complex (in Peninsular Malaysia,” says the organisation’s Tiger Landscape lead spokesman Dr Mark Rayan Darmaraj.

Although these units have no enforcement powers, Dr Darmaraj hopes that their presence will, at least, deter the poachers; however, he warns that Project Stampede cannot be a “cure” for the crisis.

“At most, we are buying time because without specialised armed tactical teams with enforcement power in place to rapidly respond to track and apprehend foreign poachers, we will lose this fight.

“Only if we enable more enforcement boots on the ground and step-up intelligence on wildlife poaching and trade syndicates that lead to arrests and prosecution will we be able to save our national icon.”