Cambodia hopes to become the first country to reintroduce tigers into the wild. However, putting paws on the ground is still years away and fraught with challenges, officials and NGOs said yesterday.
The reintroduction plan, which the government approved on March 23, calls for preparing habitats in Mondulkiri and the Cardamom Mountains, then releasing several tigers brought in from another country, most likely India. If the big cats thrive, the program may be expanded.
“Tiger protection is forest protection and it is good for the economy,” said Suwanna Gauntlett, the CEO of Wildlife Alliance (WA).
Tigers are considered “functionally extinct” in Cambodia – the last sighting was in 2007. Though other countries have programs to bolster their tiger populations, Cambodia would be the first to try to rebuild the wild population from zero.
Proponents, including the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and WA, say that a single wild tiger can bring in $50 million over its 20-25 year lifespan in ecotourism revenue, they said.
Yet many obstacles remain. One of the biggest is financial – the program will need between $15 million and $20 million from donors, according to Agriculture Ministry official Keo Omalis.
Poaching is also a “major concern”, he said, and the illegal hunting of prey animals like bantengs and wild pigs may eat away at the tigers’ prey base, while deforestation may cause further habitat loss.
Dr Ashley Brooks of WWF said the current number of forest rangers is not enough to patrol the planned 11,000-square-kilometre habitat.