Wild tigers have not been seen in Cambodia for years, but – despite habitat degradation and financial hurdles – there are hopes the species could be reintroduced
Not seen in seven years, the Kingdom’s most famous predator could be set to return to the wilds.
Dry forests in the Eastern Plains and tropical rainforests in the Cardamom Mountains were once home to a multitude of species – from the wild kouprey to the Indochinese tiger.
But after decades of deforestation, much of the forest has now been stripped bare and experts believe the tiger to be “functionally extinct”.
“In recent years, tiger populations in Cambodia have declined so drastically that resident breeding wild tigers are no longer recorded,” a representative of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) said in an email.
But interest is growing in an ambitious project to restore tigers to the wild, with local and international NGOs backing a proposed action plan drafted by the Forestry Administration that would see the species once again stalk the country’s forests.
Dr Keo Omaliss, director of the department of wildlife and biodiversity at the Forestry Administration, is among the plan’s proponents.
In an interview this week, he explained how the population of the Cambodian tiger had declined since the 1960s.
The problem is global. The world’s tiger population declined by 93 per cent since WWF began keeping records, due to both hunters and habitat destruction through land clearing.
Fewer than 32,000 now exist, with just an estimated 320 remaining in the Greater Mekong region.
In Cambodia, the hunting of sambar deer and other tiger prey for food or traditional remedies, as well as land clearing that eliminates their natural habitat, has curtailed the carnivore’s access to food and strained their chance of survival, Omaliss said.
“Wildlife hunters [kill], maybe not the tigers themselves, but the prey,” he said. “Our worry is first, people hunting tigers, and second, people hunting their prey.”
In December, Omaliss’s team accompanied staff from the California-based San Diego Zoo – which participates in global conservation projects – to Mondulkiri province’s protected forest and the Cardamom Mountains to investigate the feasibility of restoring tigers in Cambodia.
Ron Swaisgood, general scientific director of the San Diego Zoo’s Cocha Cashu Biological Station in Peru, was among the staffers who made the trip.
The group, which did not include experts in tigers or the region, decided against participating in efforts to repopulate, he said in an email.
“After our visit, we decided not to pursue the idea of reintroduction of tigers in Cambodia. We are currently evaluating how we may be able to assist with tiger recovery elsewhere and are not at present considering reintroduction to be one of the options.”
A San Diego Zoo spokeswoman who Swaisgood forwarded a Post reporter to for additional information would not explain what drove their decision and declined to provide access to someone able to clarify.
Omaliss said it came down to a funding issue, though the zoo would not confirm this.
While no one has yet tried to restore Cambodia’s tiger population, other species have been successfully reintroduced in the Kingdom and other countries.
“It’s been done frequently with several species, and without reintroduction, some species would be extinct,” said Nick Marx, director of wildlife rescue and care programs at Wildlife Alliance.
He has overseen the reintroduction of multiple wiped-out species in Cambodia, including binturong (bearcats), gibbons and pangolins, all under strict protocol.
“It’s not the sort of thing to do willy-nilly,” he said, adding that he believes it can be done with tigers.
Globally, reintroduction has been achieved with enough frequency that the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) published guidelines to be followed – from deciding when relocating animals for the purpose of repopulating the species is appropriate to continued project management and monitoring.
Marx’s team first thoroughly researched how the animals had come close to extinction, as there was no reason to resurrect a species only to have it disappear for the very same reasons.
Wildlife Alliance scrutinises locations, not only for proper climate, and access to food and water but also to determine if the land tenure is safe or in danger of becoming a space used for agriculture. Local laws banning hunting are also necessary for a location sufficient for reintroduction.
A successful reintroduction of tigers in Cambodia is entirely possible if all resources are extended, Dr. Omaliss believes.
For the past two years, Omaliss, other administration officials and NGO advisers have crafted a Cambodian Tiger Action Plan he hopes to complete by the end of the year and later implement.
Tigers would have all they need in a habitat in the Mondulkiri forest and between 100 and 200 hectares would be used as a core zone for tigers, within the protected forest, which encompasses nearly 400 hectares in total, he said.
The most important requirement of the plan could also be one of the most difficult to fulfil: funding.
“We need funding of millions and millions of dollars,” Omaliss said. “We have to really make sure that there are no hunters or loggers inside the core zone.”
Workshops with WWF, Wildlife Alliance and most wildlife organisations operating in the area have been held.
After the plan is drafted, it must be approved by the Council of Ministers and the Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, Omaliss said.
While government commitment remains to be seen, Marx says Wildlife Alliance, at least, is all in.
“If the government finally decided that they wanted to reintroduce tigers we would be with them wholeheartedly,” he said.
Captive animals need ‘soft release’ into wild
Animals that have been relocated without time in captivity are released into their new territory right away, Wildlife Alliance’s Nick Marx said. But for those that have spent time in captivity, a “soft release” method is applied.
The creatures are placed in a cage in their new habitats, fed and closely monitored while they acclimate to their new environments.
After a period of time, the cage door is opened and the animals are free to move about as they please, but are still provided with supplementary food if they are not ready to begin finding their own.
Conservationists’ role in the soft-release techniques basically resembles that of the parent of a young adult leaving home for the first time.
Some animals are more receptive to the supplementary food – which also enables conservationists to monitor them with camera traps – than others, Marx said.
While the pangolins that Marx worked with never touched the food provided for them, some binturong (also known as bearcats) released in Koh Kong three years ago are still eating the food his staff continues to provide.
Incomes fuel body parts trade
Over the years, hunters have bagged tigers for their pelts as well as the perceived medicinal benefits of their body parts among Asian countries including China and Vietnam, explained Wildlife Alliance’s Nick Marx.
Tiger bones, for example, are believed in certain cultures to be a remedy for rheumatoid arthritis.
Using the rare animal’s body parts for remedies or to acquire a tiger’s strength has increased across Asia in recent years, as an increasing number of people earn larger incomes, providing expendable income which did not exist before, according to NGO Care for the Wild International.
“As wild tiger populations declined due to trophy hunting, pest control and habitat loss, human populations and per capita expendable incomes increased dramatically in East Asia,” the group’s website says.
“This has led to a resurgence of interest in traditional cures, the use of which is seen as a status symbol, a way to retain customs amid rapid change and as an alternative to the fallibilities of Western medicine.”