By Alexandra Demetrianova
RECENTLY the Cambodian government announced plans to bring tigers, declared functionally extinct in its forests due to poaching and loss of habitat, back to its natural parks. The plan is to import eight tigers from India and release them into the wild. It is the first and unprecedented such attempt to reintroduce extinct wildlife to Cambodia.
But this week, a leading Indian conservationist expressed doubts about the plan. Speaking to Indian news outlet Live Mint, Dr. K. Ullas Karanth, director of Science-Asia for Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), said Cambodia’s plans will result in “tragic failure”, which will cost lives. Dr. Karanth has studied tiger populations extensively and said:
“I have surveyed those habitats in Cambodia two decades ago in Mondolkiri for WCS, when the last wild tigers disappeared. I do not think the required 1,000-2,000-square-kilometer area of prey-rich, people-free and livestock-free habitat is available in Cambodia at this time to seed and establish a viable tiger population. Every wild tiger requires 500 large prey animals to sustain it. If they are not there, it will kill livestock and people.”
The grand plan of the Ministry of Agriculture in cooperation with World Wildlife Fund (WWF) eyes the release of eight big cats to Eastern Cambodia, where they have been declared “functionally extinct”. The animals would roam the Mondulkiri Protected Forest, which runs along Vietnamese border. It will cost between US$20 million to US$50 million dollars to run the project.
“As part of the most expansive and intact tropical dry forest in Southeast Asia, it boasts one of the largest areas of high-quality tiger habitat and has amongst the best potential carrying capacities for tigers and their prey in the region,” said WWF in its report released last week.
WWF supports the Cambodian government’s plans with a preliminary feasibility study from 2013. In it, WWF experts considered tiger reintroduction in the Eastern Plains Landscape, with 30,000 sq km, including four protected areas such as the Mondulkiri Protected Forest.
The outcome of the study was: “…reintroduction is technically, ecologically and socially feasible provided ungulate tiger prey populations continued recovering due to strong law enforcement.”
WWF estimates that the planned tiger population would need nine Sambar deer per sq km of Mondulkiri forest (4,000 sq km). Law enforcement would also need a boost of six times more rangers than are currently in service.
And that’s a serious obstacle in Cambodia, where national park rangers are understaffed, underpaid and clearly not in control of protected areas, which fall prey to illegal logging as well as wildlife poaching. Cambodia has one of the highest deforestation rates worldwide, and some protected areas around Mondulkiri forest have been already cut down to make way for rubber plantations.
Proper habitat for the tiger, enough forests and prey, and preferably no interaction with people, make up only one set of challenges. The plan to reintroduce tiger to Eastern Cambodia also overlaps with other development projects. Government plans to build a road directly through Mondulkiri forest to the border with Vietnam.
Conservationists have criticized this plan altogether and it is difficult to imagine how far-roaming tigers will co-exist with a road. WWF defended the reintroduction program, saying the road development had been put on hold. But Cambodian authorities said this week the road planning was still in progress:
“We have not built anything yet, but right now we are studying the master plan. The provincial public works and transport department is considering how to build it, like where to start and what route to take.
“I think it’s a good plan; those tigers will give birth to another generation. We will try to protect the forest to make it a safe place for them to live.”
Based on his research in Eastern Cambodia, Indian tiger expert Dr. Karanth called the plan of Cambodia’s Agriculture Ministry “bereft” of any understanding of ecology or Cambodian social context. He also expressed concern that the plan was going to be resented in local communities. “It will lead to tragic failure, for which the introduced tigers will pay with their lives,” he said.
To compare Cambodia’s case with much larger India, where tigers have in recent years thrived, especially thanks to law enforcement and forest protection, Dr. Karanth said that Indian tiger reintroduction efforts in recent decades have resulted in failure – only one was a success.
“All others have failed or stalled, in some cases with dozens of people being killed and tigers being finally shot,” said Dr. Karanth in the interview with Indian media. “Both Global Tiger Forum and WWF, which are promoting this extremely unwise scheme, may eventually regret their decision if they do go ahead with it.”
Today in Cambodia it is almost unbelievable to think back twenty years, when the country had one of the highest tiger populations in the world. U.S.-based NGO Cat Action Treasury (CAT) had conducted a study back in 1999 in 13 provinces around the country.
Speaking to rangers as well as poachers, CAT found there were up to 700 adult tigers in Cambodia’s forests, three times more than thought (100-200). At that time, Cambodia came second to India’s 4,000 tigers.
CAT’s Cambodian Tiger Preservation Project’s coordinator Hunter Weiler said back in 1999: “In Cambodia, the forest areas where tigers live are large and not fragmented. In India, tigers live only in little patches of forest scattered.”
And yet given that advantage, 17 years later, Cambodia has lost the Indochinese tiger definitely due to poaching of the big cat, its prey, as well as massive deforestation. The last tiger had been recorded on camera trap in Mondulkiri province in 2007.
On the contrary, India has seen a 30 percent rise in its tiger population since 2011, estimated at 2,226 tigers in 2014. That’s Indochinese and Bengal tigers combined, together with other subspecies. Optimists suggest that there could be some 3,000 to 4,000 tigers in India, which has the highest (70 percent) population of tigers in the world.
Clearly, for a healthy tiger population to increase and thrive, the right natural habitat – large forests with abundant prey and as little contact with humans as possible – is necessary. For this to be achieved, forest areas need to be protected with strong law enforcement. None of these key attributes seem to be without a challenge in Cambodia. The reasons for which the Indochinese tiger is functionally extinct in the Kingdom – deforestation and poaching – are still present and have not been effectively addressed or prevented by the authorities.