“We have successfully improved their habitation areas by using the latest technology and the smart patrol system.”
The numbers tell a bleak tale: tigers have lost some 95% of their historical range and now number a mere 4,000 or so in the wild. Encouragingly, however, two countries have made marked progress in stabilizing the populations of wild tigers in protected forest reserves.
One of those countries is India while the other is Thailand, which now boasts the largest number of wild tigers in all of Southeast Asia thanks to stepped-up conservation measures over the past decade.
In two Thai wildlife sanctuaries called Thungyai and Huai Kha Khaeng, the number of tigers increased from 42 in 2012 to around 100 this year owing to improved patrol services aimed at deterring poachers.
“We have successfully improved their habitation areas by using the latest technology and the smart patrol system,” explains Varawut Silpa-archa, the country’s minister of Natural Resources and Environment.
The new smart patrol system, aided by technology, has been installed in 213 protected forest parks around Thailand as the Southeast Asian nation seeks to boost its tiger population further by 2034.
Cameras installed strategically around wildlife sanctuaries also keep tabs on wild tigers and other critically endangered animals so experts can monitor their populations.
“We have seen tiger footprints from the cameras installed in national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, and it is estimated there are 148-149 tigers in the forests, the highest number in Southeast Asia,” says Phadet Laithong, director of the government-run Wildlife Conservation Office.
“To conserve tigers means conserving the forests where animals live. The biodiversity of an area always correlates with its tiger population,” he adds.
Thailand’s success in increasing the number of big cats in the wild is especially welcome as other nations in the region have been far less successful in preserving wild tiger populations.
Indochinese tigers (Panthera tigris corbetti) have been declared extinct in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam with the striped predators losing out to habitat loss and poaching. In Malaysia, meanwhile, the fate of the Malayan tiger (Panthera tigris jacksoni) hangs in the balance as a result of continued deforestation, biodiversity loss and rampant poaching.
In Thailand too poaching remains a constant threat. Earlier this year the pelts of two newly killed tigers were discovered by park rangers in central Thailand, near the country’s border with Myanmar.
Alerted by billowing smoke in a protected forest, the rangers also discovered tiger meat left roasting on a grill at a campsite by four suspected poachers who managed to flee and evade the officials who were in hot pursuit.
“When they inspected the camp, the patrol members were aghast to find the meat of two tigers being grilled at the site. Nearby the tigers’ pelts were being dried,” a local newspaper reported. “The officials also found four weapons and 29 other items at the site. A cow carcass, believed to have been used as bait to lure the big cats, was found tied to a nearby bamboo tree.”
A few days later the suspects turned themselves in, telling police that they had shot the two tigers because the predators had been attacking their cattle. However, officials disputed their account.
“The fact that there are no prior recorded reports of tigers killing cattle in the area, as claimed by the suspects, raises further questions about this latest incident,” the environmental website Mongabay explained. “Poaching is driven by mainly Chinese and Vietnamese demand for skins, bones and other body parts used in tiger-based traditional medicines and decorative curios.”
The killing of the two tigers showed that despite their successes Thai wildlife officials will have to stay vigilant. Deterring poachers will be key if the country, the last bastion of wild tigers in Indochina, is to ensure that its tigers can continue bouncing back from the brink.