Tigers once roamed wild and free across the jungles of the world. As apex predators, life was good. Fast forward to today and most of us already know that tigers around the globe are being threatened by an even deadlier predator – humans. The case is no exception in Southeast Asia which has already seen the extinction of two subspecies: the Bali tiger (extinct since the 1930s) and the Javan tiger (extinct since the 1980s).
While all remaining subspecies of tigers are currently facing the very real possibility of extinction, the purpose of this article is to zero-in on one subspecies in particular – the Indochinese tiger.
Indochinese tigers were once abundant around most of the Southeast Asian region. They could be found in Cambodia, Lao, Myanmar, Vietnam, and Thailand. But due to human development such as road construction; which has fragmented habitats; as well as decades of poaching, their numbers have seen a sharp decline.
Today, people in Vietnam and Cambodia will no longer be able to spot Indochinese tigers as the subspecies has gone extinct in these two countries. Meanwhile, Lao and Myanmar are also seeing depressing numbers. According to a 2010 International Tiger Forum, Lao has a maximum of 23 tigers left while Myanmar has a maximum of 85. That was nine years ago.
Sanctuary in Thailand
Back in 2017, Thailand was under heavy criticism after a video of staff at a zoo repeatedly prodding a tiger to elicit roars for tourist photos went viral. This renewed criticism of the kingdom's notorious animal tourism industry.
Today, however, it seems that the Indochinese tiger’s biggest hope comes from the Land of Smiles.
Thailand has just set up a tiger conservation centre in the Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary. There, local forest rangers will be trained to keep an eye on the critically endangered tigers as well as their prey animals like gaur and barking deer, which are being driven to extinction from hunting as well.
Wildlife Conservation and Science (WCS) Thailand director Anak Pattanavibool, who is also a tiger expert, currently puts the number of Indochinese tigers in Thailand at around 160.
“The western forest complex is our biggest hope,” he said. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, that forest is home to about 100 to 120 wild tigers, with 80 of these living in the Thungyai-Huai Kha Khaeng wildlife sanctuary.
Between January 2000 and December 2015, it has been estimated that a minimum of 1,755 and maximum of 2,011 tigers were killed based on the analysis of seized tigers, alive and dead, as well as tiger parts over the 16-year period. This estimation, provided in a report by TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade monitoring network, is based on 801 reported seizures across 13 Tiger Range Countries (TRCs). ASEAN countries account for more than half of the TRCs. The TRCs in the region are Indonesia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Malaysia. The other TRCs are Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Nepal and Russia.
According to the report, during this period of time, on average, a minimum of 110 tigers were seized annually and 50 seizures were reported annually. The highest number of seizures were reported from 2008 to 2011 and the highest number of seizures was reported by India, accounting for 44 percent of all reported seizures. In 2016, the Cambodian tiger was declared “functionally extinct” with no breeding populations left in the wild.
According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Indochinese tiger numbers are in shocking decline across its range because of shrinking habitats, expanding human populations, poaching, and illegal wildlife trade.
Vital tiger populations are also depleted by a growing commercial demand for wild meat in restaurants. In the Lower Mekong Forests region, prey densities are very low due to intensive hunting and weak law enforcement over the past few decades. Wild tigers are also poached in order to meet increasing demand for tiger body parts used in traditional medicine and new folk tonics.
Tiger farms in Thailand, Vietnam and China maintain the demand for tiger products from all sources – including the wild – and worsen the poaching problem.
The WWF also notes that while healthy habitats are extensive in some areas they are under constant pressure from agricultural plantations, mining concessions and inundation from hydropower development. Habitat fragmentation due to rapid development – especially the building of road networks – is a serious problem. This fragmentation forces what tigers are left into scattered, small refuges, which isolates populations and also increases accessibility for poachers.
Apex predators provide a very important equilibrium to their ecosystems. Remove the apex predator and the whole environment is affected. This is no different from the Indochinese tigers in the jungles and mountains of Southeast Asia. It’s good that at least Thailand notes the importance of such majestic animals.