When Cambodia announced plans to reintroduce tigers into the wild, the response was predictably negative. The country’s overarching reputation for corruption and mismanagement rose to the fore with its critics using an endangered species to carp about well-documented inadequacies.
The Indochina tiger has been functionally extinct for several years. It was initially reported more than a year ago in The Diplomat, although the local press and NGOs only picked up on the story shortly before the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) said they hoped to relocate tigers from India.
“Most expert tiger authorities in the world released a paper concluding the Cambodia proposal was certain to fail and would result in the deaths of humans and tigers, and that the sponsors of the proposal would live to really regret it,” said Hunter Weiler, a veteran tiger campaigner.
“This resulted in a firestorm of reaction, response and world press coverage.”
Three of the 13 tiger countries – Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam have no tigers in the wild and they are functionally extinct in China. There are just 3,200 tigers roaming wild in the forests of India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, Russia and Indonesia.
Illegal poachers cashing in on the Chinese medicinal market – where traditional practices beggar belief – are largely to blame with middle men operating mainly out of Vietnam and Thailand.
A reintroduction plan by California-based San Diego Zoo had also been put forward but was dashed after zoo officials toured protected forests in Mondulkiri province and the Cardamom Mountains and concluded the country was not ready for such an ambitious plan.
“You can’t put a tiger back without restoring the habitat and a tiger needs to take one large animal a week. A Samba deer is ideal prey for a tiger so if you have enough Samba then its possible,” Marcus Hardtke a leading regional environmental campaigner said.
Sixteen years ago, Hardtke was part of wildlife team which smashed a cross-border smuggling racket and he rescued several tiger cubs. One had a broken back and later died, while another three were taken to the Cambodian zoo on the outskirts of Phnom Penh where they were raised.
They are among the last Indochinese tigers left in Cambodia. During a recent visit, Hardtke told The Diplomat he was pleased with conditions at the zoo and said staff had done a good job at raising and looking after the tigers he had saved.
But he added: “Setting a tiger loose in Cambodia would be like announcing the start of a fox hunt in merry ol’ England. You know: toot toot,” he said, mimicking the sound of a fox hunting horn.
“It’s not like people are being attacked by tigers,” he added. “Cambodia would have to beef-up the whole protection management system by 200 percent if an attempt at re-populating big cats is too be made.”
One global tiger bright spot is India, where tiger numbers have grown by 30 percent in recent years. It is from here that wildlife authorities would like take and re-populate tiger numbers in Cambodia.
Weiler, a campaigner and consultant to Indochinese governments, agreed with Hardtke.
“I really believe there is a lot of nonsense on the tiger issue,” he said.
He said there had already been several meetings between the Cambodian government, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), and the India Tiger Authority. India had also indicated it was receptive to the proposal, provided certain conditions are met.
“There have been a number of really important developments in the tiger conservation field over the past two months,” Weiler said.
“Current ecological and management conditions within Mondulkiri Protected Forest are not suitable for tiger reintroduction. However with improved and more effective law enforcement, combined with robust biological monitoring of ungulate tiger prey populations, such conditions could be met quickly.”
But he said the Cambodia Tiger Action Plan, which states that reintroduction could begin in three years using wild caught tigers from India, was overly ambitious.
“I think that is impossible. It would take at least 10 years, maybe longer and maybe never since the proper conditions may never be met.”
As a result, Weiler is working on a scientific paper on dealing with the reintroduction of tigers into eastern Cambodia. It’s a plan in the making and it still might work.
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt