Hunters stalk the forests of Cambodia with one terget in mind . . . the rapidly shrinking Cambodian tiger population. Both scenes captured by hidden camera traps.
According to a US wildlife NGO, Cat Action Treasury (CAT), seven tigers were killed
on the northern plains of Preah Vihear, and three in the eastern forests of Mondolkiri.
The toll in Koh Kong included two cubs, one of which died on its way to market while
the other ended up in the hands of a wildlife trader.
More than five years of conservation efforts and millions of dollars of foreign aid
later, the fate of the most majestic of nature's wild animals remains gloomy. If
22 cases of tiger poaching have been recorded in just 20 months, and that from three
of the last four refuges for the country's tigers, how many have gone unreported?
Equally important, how many are left?
The most common estimate among conservationists is that there is a base population
of around 150 tigers in Cambodia. Experts fear it may no longer be biologically viable
to sustain the population in the long term. Hunter Weiler, CAT's project manager
in Cambodia, says the chances of biological viability are considerably higher if
the population is concentrated in a single, continuous region.
"In Cambodia, however, a small number of tigers are spread very thinly across
the country in several unconnected areas, with each group living isolated from the
other. As a result, continuous inbreeding and lack of new ranges for the new generation,
coupled with regular hunting, could wipe out the last of the tiger population within
the next five years," he says.
Information on illegal poaching of tigers and other large mammals including leopards,
elephants and bears is compiled by a group of hunters-turned-gamekeepers called Community
Wildlife Rangers. They are employed by CAT for regular patrols in three regions as
part of its ongoing tiger conservation program, funded by 'Save the Tiger Fund' and
the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
Among its findings, CAT's report highlighted that ruthless hunting of tigers and
other large mammals continues largely unabated even in forest areas that are being
managed, patrolled or monitored by two government ministries and at least six international
conservation NGOs. CAT's previous report indicated no fewer than 50 tigers killed
in the same three regions during 1998-99.
Typical of their rivalry and persistent turf battles, most NGOs are wary of accepting
the results of a survey they maintain is based on second-hand sources, i.e. former
hunters who gather information during regular patrols conducted within the three
regional community-based tiger conservation project offices.
Although they recognize the situation may not be as bleak as it appears, they admit
that is no excuse for ignoring the systematic annihilation of such a species, given
that they all are involved directly or indirectly in conserving either tigers or
Given the right habitat, including a large prey base and security against poaching,
Weiler says the tiger population can rebound. He cites the Indian example where tigers
were brought back from the verge of extinction through the creation of protected
In Cambodia, however, both the government and conservationists maintain the concept
of a clearly marked tiger reserve is almost impossible. Human settlements and logging
concessions are closely entwined with the reserve forests that fall under the jurisdiction
of the Ministry of Environment (MoE) and the adjoining 'forest land' that is the
responsibility of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF).
The result is a virtual free-for-all where hunters continue to decimate the remaining
tigers to feed the never-ending market for bones and other parts used in Chinese
Government figures state that 40 percent of Cambodia's land mass is still forested,
while 18 percent of the country's land is in theory set aside as protected areas.
The 23 protected areas include seven national parks and ten wildlife sanctuaries.
It sounds good, but there are problems: forest cover is shrinking rapidly due to
both legal and illegal logging, while less than 5 percent of protected areas are
actually watched over by staff and rangers.
"We just don't have the necessary resources or manpower to take care of such
large areas," says Meng Monyrak, vice-chief of the protected areas office in
the MoE. Even worse is the law and its enforcement: Monyrak rues that even in cases
where MoE's rangers catch hunters with a kill, they cannot arrest them.
"And if the police are involved [in their arrest], the courts release them after
slapping a fine on them," he adds. The country's extremely weak wildlife laws
help perpetuate the vicious cycle of repeated hunting, negating whatever tiger conservation
efforts are made.
Sun Hean, MAFF's deputy director in the Wildlife Protection Office (WPO), says single
species conservation is no longer a priority for the government. He says the focus
is on shifting to biodiversity conservation including protection of endangered large
mammals and other flora and fauna through community based landscape management. Such
a system, he adds, takes into consideration all the wildlife sanctuaries, forests,
logging concessions and even human settlements that surround them.
That is an argument reminiscent of the chicken and egg story. After all, aren't tigers
also the prime indicator of the health of a forest? A healthy tiger population means
the forest is abundant in prey like sambar, deer, gaur, wild pig and other large
An abundance of these animals, in turn, is the indicator of the quality of their
habitat - i.e. a healthy forest. And if other mammals that form the tigers' prey
base are being killed, can't stopping that in effect stop tiger hunting as well?
CAT's Weiler says evidence suggests otherwise: tigers are targeted specifically for
their monetary value.
"Despite all the logging concessions that are fast shrinking Cambodia's forest
cover, there still exist large tracts of thickly forested land with an unusually
high concentration of prey base but no tigers," Weiler says.
The situation, according to him, suggests that poaching remains the single biggest
threat to the existence of tigers in Cambodia. Limited efforts to curb poaching have
so far met with little or no success.
So does this mean that Cambodia has lost the battle to conserve tigers? Neither the
leading NGOs working for tiger conservation nor the government have a definitive
answer to this question. More disturbing is their silence over reported tiger killings:
losing 22 tigers from a population that is certainly small, could spell doom for
the highly endangered species.
Joe Walston is a biodiversity expert at the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS),
which began supporting MAFF's wildlife conservation programs two years ago. He says
it is wrong to blame shortfalls in the conservation efforts for the failure to save
"The fact is," he says, "tiger conservation work has not even begun
in Cambodia. Efforts so far have been restricted to surveys by various organizations
to collect scientific data on the possible locations and numbers of tigers."
The objective of the WCS surveys, he says, was to identify and prioritize areas where
tiger populations exist or have the potential to flourish. That is precisely what
the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), another major NGO working in the area, sought
to achieve with its surveys. Both organizations, like most others, mention in their
reports the need for yet more in-depth surveys.
Years of surveys carried out at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars have,
however, merely confirmed what was already known from anecdotal surveys: tigers are
now restricted to only four regions - Mondolkiri, Rattanakiri, Koh Kong/Pursat and
Preah Vihear - and that they are fast disappearing.
Ironically the country's first-ever tiger survey carried out by CAT in 1998 using
interviews with hunters came to the same conclusion. It recommended that what was
left should be immediately secured.
At one time tigers were widespread across Cambodia. MAFF's Hean says that before
CAT surveyed the three regions, there was evidence to suggest that as many as 200
tigers were being killed every year and sold to wildlife traders across the border.
"In areas like Preah Vihear, where tigers are now hard to come by, they once
roamed in large numbers until the eighties," he says.
According to separate evidence collected by the government and various NGOs including
CAT, WCS, World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), Flora and Fauna International (FFI),
WildAid and Conservation International, hunting pressures have largely restricted
tigers to four isolated regions: Virachey National Park in northern Rattanakiri and
a small part of northern Stung Treng; southwest Mondolkiri; the Cardamom Mountains;
and the northern plains of Preah Vihear.
Of these, the Cardamom mountains, which include Pursat, Koh Kong and part of Kampong
Speu province, retain potentially the largest - and therefore a likely biologically
viable - population. That is closely followed by the Samling logging concession in
Mondolkiri. Although the two remaining areas do harbor tigers, says CAT, their density
is far lower, as is their viability. With high levels of hunting, it seems the tiger
in Cambodia is well on its way to extinction.
Cambodia is probably the only country where landmines, bombs and other explosives
are regularly used for poaching tigers.
Although such methods ruin most of the skin, the high value of other body parts such
as bones, claws, penis and whiskers makes it worthwhile for the poachers, says David
Mead of CI.
The latest tiger report from CAT shows the most popular poaching methods. The most
common technique is to place wire snares on tiger trails. The snares are made of
thin wire, with one end fastened to the flexible branch of a tree and the noose end
hidden under leaves on the trail. When the tiger steps on the noose, the branch jerks
backwards gripping the tiger's paw or head.
Another method is to set up bait and shoot the animal when it approaches. Using remotely
triggered explosives on an animal carcass is the third most common method: as the
tiger tugs at the meat, a wire fuse attached to a battery detonates the explosive.
A recent innovation involves placing land mines underneath a carcass: when the tiger
arrives, the hunter manually detonates the mine.
A recent WCS camera trap survey indicates that hunters are several hundred times
more effective at locating tigers than conservationists. More than 10,000 days of
camera trap surveys in eight different forest areas yielded just nine photographs
of four different tigers.
"The sheer number of traps work against the tiger; conservationists look for
them through [only a few] cameras hidden on the trails," says CAT's Hunter Weiler.
"One of the tiger's weaknesses is its trail. It usually moves seven to ten miles
every night using the same trails, rather than moving cross country. Hunters identify
these trails and saturate them with 100 or 200 wire snares. The tiger can probably
escape one or two, but not all," His patrols regularly come across gangs of
hunters armed with 100 snares each.
Experts cite three categories of hunters: local villagers working in the forests,
professional tiger hunters, and soldiers after easy money. Two years ago in Mondolkiri,
MAFF rangers found a group of villagers who had killed a tiger in the forest after
a chance encounter. The villagers were taken to the police station and forced to
sign an oath undertaking that they would never again kill a tiger.
Professional hunters tend to travel from province to province. Weiler cites an example
from Pursat where hunters went into the forest on the pretext of collecting fuel
wood. In fact they had been contracted from Thailand to kill a tiger, and did so
before rangers could reach them.
Police and military in remote regions are also involved in illegal hunting and have
easy access to guns and bombs. In December 2000, CAT recorded a tiger in Pursat province
killed by soldiers using land mines. The bones were sold in neighboring Koh Kong.
The high value of a tiger - around $3,000 for its skin, bones and other body parts
- means that many hunters don't bother with other mammals. Conservationists maintain
that professionals and soldiers, rather than villagers, remain the biggest threat
to the tiger's survival.
Can the big cats be saved?
This year is clearly one for big wildlife conservation projects in Cambodia.
Six international NGOs will embark on long-term, multi-million dollar biodiversity
conservation programs in collaboration with MAFF and the MoE. Among the funders are
the World Bank, the Global Environment Facility, Oxfam America and WildAid.
WWF and WCS have selected areas in Mondolkiri and Preah Vihear, while Conservation
International is looking to 'seal' 330,000 hectares of the central Cardamoms by training
and deploying rangers.
In Mondolkiri, the Department of Forestry and Wildlife (DFW) will initiate a cross-border
conservation effort between Cambodia and Vietnam, with financial support from the
International Tropical Timber Organization. The project will cost $930,000 over the
first two years. Its aim is to preserve the region's biological diversity while maintaining
the rights of local communities to use forest resources.
FFI and WildAid will assist MAFF and the MoE with a combination of law enforcement
and conservation programs that have the potential to save the tigers, along with
the rest of the flora and fauna.
Carving up the turf among the community of highly competitive conservation NGOs has
not been without conflict. As most compete for external funding from the same sources
year on year, there is often a tendency to present one proposal as better than another.
With that now out of the way, NGOs say they are ready to begin projects that should
yield good results.
"Money is finally going into enforcement," says Joe Walston of WCS. "Since
most tiger populations live both inside and outside of the protected areas [we will]
concentrate on landscapes, including community forests and logging concessions."
He says Samling's logging concession in southwest Mondolkiri is the most promising
habitat for reviving the country's tiger population. He likens it to Nagarhole, a
former logging concession in south India that is now a leading tiger conservation
"Southern Mondolkiri has all the main features of Nagarhole, but doesn't have
the necessary set up for the protection of this environment," he says. The program
will include setting up exclusion zones in which hunting of tigers or their prey
will be banned.
David Mead of CI says his group will focus on the central Cardamoms, which contains
some of the country's best remaining forest and virtually intact tiger habitat and
The first effort to document the number of tigers in Cambodia was undertaken by CAT
in 1998. Hundreds of hunters were interviewed in 15 provinces for information about
"Hunting tigers then was not seen as a crime and we often got leads about well-known
hunters and their kills from local authorities themselves," says CAT's Weiler.
Some hunters, with their in-depth knowledge of the forests, are now employed as rangers
by the conservation body.
Suitable habitat needed
If the danger of tigers becoming extinct in Cambodia is increasing, the situation
in neighboring countries is even worse.
Recent reports from Vietnam and Laos show that relentless hunting of tigers in those
countries has wiped out the entire population.
Perhaps a few dozen survive in the wild, mainly along the Cambodian border where
a continuous span of forests covers the three countries. A report from Thailand released
in 2000 estimated the number of tigers in the wild there at around 150.
Vietnam and Laos suffer from what conservationists call 'empty forest syndrome',
where large habitats of lush forests are still intact but tiger and tiger prey has
been completely wiped out.
"There are also some former logging concession areas in Cambodia where the landscape
has been wiped clean, but there remain large, comparatively undisturbed tracts that
can shelter tigers," Walston says. If tigers in the region have any future,
say conservationists, Cambodia probably provides them with their best chance, provided
hunting can be curbed.
How can the beast be saved? In a book on saving tigers brought out by the UK-based
Care for the Wild International, author Lindsey Gillson wrote: "Saving the tiger
will include short and long term strategies, but the most urgent action required
is the strict protection of tigers in the field. Without this, all other strategies
will be useless, because the tiger will have vanished from the wild forever."
At the heart of the strategy to save tigers is identifying high priority tiger populations
on which immediate conservation efforts are focused. The WCS strategy paper Saving
The Tiger states that tigers need large tracts of suitable habitat with high densities
of large herbivore prey such as deer, pigs and wild cattle, adequate water sources
and sufficient green cover to allow them to hunt.
"We all know tigers breed quickly and can rebound quickly," says Walston.
"We need to perform triage with actual conservation efforts involving vigorous
Weiler adds that immediate intervention rather than the luxury of more surveys and
in-depth studies is what CAT has stressed since 2000. It will prove impossible to
cease hunting, he says, as long as demand exists for tiger bones and there are traders
willing to pay up to $3,000 per animal.
However, government and NGOs can no longer say they need more surveys to identify
existing or potential tiger habitats. As the WCS strategy paper states, what is needed
is to secure what is left and save through anti-poaching measures the last of the
magnificent animals that are a universal symbol of physical beauty, power and lithe