“The western forest complex is our biggest hope,” stresses Thai tiger expert Anak Pattanavibool.
Indochinese tigers once roamed far and wide across much of Southeast Asia, but the striped predators have already been driven extinct in Vietnam and Cambodia. In Laos and Myanmar too they are on their last legs, having been hunted into near-extinction by poachers who sell their pelts and bones on the black market.
Thailand, where 160 or so Indochinese tigers still remain in the wild, is doing its best, though, to save the last few dozen wild tigers in the country. The Southeast Asian nation has just set up a tiger conservation center in the Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary, where local forest rangers will be trained to keep eyes on the critically endangered big cats and their prey animals like gaur and barking deer, which too have been decimated by hunting.
The wildlife sanctuary, which lies in Thailand’s Western Forest Complex, is one of the last refuges of the country’s big cats, which have been driven from most other local forests over the past decades.
The forest, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, remains home to around 100 to 120 wild tigers. Of these, some 80 are within two local wildlife sanctuaries. “The western forest complex is our biggest hope,” stresses Thai tiger expert Anak Pattanavibool.
Local rangers’ tasks will also entail stopping poachers and hunters in their tracks. Not that long ago teams of poachers at times killed up to 20 tigers within a matter of days by shooting the predators or by poisoning them with animal carcasses packed with pesticides.
Although protection measures have been stepped up in the forest complex, poaching remains an ever-present threat, local officials say. “We hope to be able to protect the western forest – one of the last secure habitats of the Indochinese tiger population,” says Thanya Netithammakul, director-general of Thailand’s Department of National Park, Wildlife, and Plant Conservation.
It isn’t just Indochinese tigers that are at grave risk of going extinct. The planet’s 4,000-plus wild tigers are increasingly embattled throughout all their ranges from Russia to Nepal. In India, whose Bengal tiger population remains relatively robust with around 2,200 of them left in the wild, at least 429 tigers were killed by poachers in the decade between 2008 and 2018. Over the past few years hundreds of tigers in India have died from other causes as well.
Back in the 19th century as many as 100,000 wild tigers still inhabited much of Asia. Today the last remnants, a mere 4% of the number a century ago, are facing relentless habitat loss and other threats. The Wildlife Conservation Society has just warned that unless wild tigers are better protected everywhere, their days are likely numbered and they may go extinct in a decade.
Population growth and increased urbanization are among the greatest threats to tigers in countries like India, where constant encroachment by people on tigers’ natural habitats is pushing the animals ever further into their last few pockets of forest refuge, the conservationist group says.
“If we want a world with tigers, forests, and wildness to persist beyond the 21st century, conservation needs to join forces with groups working to alleviate poverty, enhance education for girls, reduce meat consumption, and build sustainable cities,” stresses Joe Walston, WCS’s senior vice-president of field conservation.