Spare a Thought for the Tiger of East Asia, It’s Almost Gone


This year has been a memorable one when measured through the prism of journalism, and 2015 could be much bigger given the shenanigans of governments within ASEAN and abroad, and the prospect of a significant downturn in the global and regional economies.

The coup in Thailand, protests in Cambodia and unpopular governments in Malaysia and Myanmar were as disturbing as Chinese encroachment into Vietnamese and Philippine waters, the introduction of sharia law in Brunei, and a refusal by establishment types in Indonesia to accept the smooth transfer of power to a freely elected government.

But other stories went under reported, among them a sad farewell to tigers. There are no tigers left in the wildernesses of Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, or probably China. All are gone thanks to the poachers who hunted them, with the compliments of governments that specialize in lip service when it comes to protecting the environment and its wildlife.

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“Three of the 13 tiger countries – Cambodia Laos and Vietnam have no tigers,” campaigner and consultant to Indochinese governments, Hunter Weiler, told The Diplomat, adding the tiger was functionally extinct in China – meaning the population base is so tiny it can no longer sustain itself or even be counted.

He said efforts to reintroduce the tigers were fraught with problems, in particular poaching which has also taken an enormous toll on wildlife needed to feed a wild tiger population.

One tiger will eat at least one big animal running loose in the forest, such as a deer, a week. As a rule of thumb a tiger’s hunting ground demands a population of at least 500 big animals per tiger a year and those numbers simply do not exist any more.

The biggest issue is cost, with funding provided by Western institutions, but Weiler said there was no protection from poachers “so why on earth would anyone spend” when the tigers would not last a year given starvation and poaching.

Despite the true scientific advances in Western medical circles, the dubious practices of traditional Chinese medicine are still largely responsible for the tiger’s disappearance.

Such practices date back more than 1,500 years with the meat and the paws, whiskers, tail, penises, tail, skin, and tongue all sold for an array of ailments because tigers are considered iconic and associated with courage, strength, and good fortune.

In fact, Chinese medicine shops in Cambodia have been following the path of the tiger into extinction simply because the supply of tiger parts can no longer meet demand.

There are now just 3,200 tigers left, roaming wild in the forests of the remaining 10 tiger countries – India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, Russia, Indonesia and China – if one thinks the half-dozen or so that might be out there in China matter.

Habitat destruction in Thailand and Malaysia, where tiger numbers are measured at somewhere between 250 and 300, also makes a mockery of their respective governments, who watched as the animal was monetized as just another commodity while they held them up as some kind of national symbol.

Nevertheless, there is a goal to double what’s left of the global tiger population in the wild by 2022, although Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and China deserve to be snubbed for generations by wildlife groups hoping to save the big cat from total extinction.

“The problems have not been rectified,” Weiler said, “So why would you spend on them.”

He said money should be spent on saving existing wild tiger populations.

The biggest issue is enforcing legal protection at the regional and international level. Wildlife authorities and NGOs have often complained that a crackdown in one country will simply push criminal elements into poaching in another.

“Once they’re secured then we can look at reintroduction,” Weiler said.

That could be some way off. Until then the outlook is bleak.

Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt

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