Tigers have been declared extinct in Cambodia and Vietnam. Now the same fate has befallen them in Laos too.
Indochinese tigers have fallen on hard times, having seen their habitats throughout their former ranges drastically reduced over the decades. Rampant poaching has also taken their toll on the majestic predators. Tigers have recently been declared extinct in Cambodia and neighboring Vietnam.
Now the same fate has apparently befallen them in Laos as well.
A few years ago a team of researchers set out to assess the population of tigers in Nam Et-Phou Louey National Park, a remote protected area in northern Laos where tigers, it was believed, could still roam. The experts now report that since 2013 no tigers have been in the area on camera traps operated by conservationists. Leopards, too, appear to have vanished from the national park.
The scientists say they detected 43 different mammal and bird species, but did not see a single leopard (Panthera pardus). They spotted two individual tigers on their cameras but that was in 2013, which suggests, they say, “that both large felids are now extirpated from [the area] and presumably also more widely throughout Lao PDR.”
This finding is highly troubling as Nam Et-Phou Louey has been seen as a potential last refuge for beleaguered big cats in Southeast Asia. Clouded leopards (Neofelis nebulosi) still inhabit the mountainous area, as do dholes (Cuon alpinus), yet both of these big cats require stepped-up conservation too.
“For the constellation of remaining protected areas in Southeast Asia for tigers, this was an important one — maybe even a potential jewel in the crown,” laments David Macdonald, a wildlife conservationist at the University of Oxford who was an author of a study with the findings. “To find that that jewel has blinked out is devastating.”
What the researchers did discover, in the place of tigers and leopards, were crude snares set by local poachers. Locals regularly seek to nab high-value animals such as tigers and leopards to sell their body parts in a country that remains one of Asia’s poorest nations.
“Snares are simple to make,” explains Akchousanh Rasphone, a zoologist with the Wildlife Research Conservation Unit who led the study. “One person can set hundreds or even thousands of snares, which kill indiscriminately and are inhumane for anything that is captured.”
Even as tigers have been driven extinct from the wild in Laos, plenty of the predators remain in captivity in the country. Most are kept at so-called tiger farms where they are bred as tourist attractions and so that they can be harvested for their body parts.