Tiger Hunters May Fall Prey to Malaysia’s Poaching Clampdown
By Ranjeetha Pakiam
March 17 (Bloomberg) -- Only once in 20 years of hunting in the Malaysian jungle did Bo witness the shooting of a tiger.
“That’s like hitting the jackpot,” said Bo, who mostly hunts wild boar for sport and declined to give his full name because tigers are a protected species in Malaysia. “I’ve never had the opportunity to shoot at a tiger.”
Only about 500 tigers remain in the wild in Malaysia, compared with 3,000 in the 1950s, after habitat destruction and poaching to supply an illegal trade in skins and parts for traditional medicines, according to Traffic, a wildlife-trade monitoring group. Tiger killers who are caught face a maximum fine of 15,000 ringgit ($4,035) -- less than a 10th of the price a pelt can fetch in China, according to data from the Havocscope Black Market Environmental Index.
The tigers are part of “a multibillion dollar industry” in trading protected species, said Chris R. Shepherd, senior program officer for Traffic South East Asia. “It’s often compared in size to the drug trade and the global arms trade, but the penalties are a joke.”
Now, environmental groups and the government have banded together to reverse the decline in the local tiger population. The Malaysian Conservation Alliance for Tigers, or Mycat, teams conservation groups Traffic, WWF, the Malaysian Nature Society and the Wildlife Conservation Society with the Department of Wildlife and National Parks, to implement a National Tiger Action Plan aimed at doubling the number of wild tigers by 2020.
The plan, introduced in December, calls for securing 51,000 square kilometers (19,691 square miles) in the central forest spine, where most tigers are found. Amendments to the 1972 Wildlife Protection Act, expected to be tabled during the next parliament sitting which starts in June, include raising the maximum fine to 500,000 ringgit and a mandatory jail term of up to 10 years, said Abd. Rasid Samsudin, director-general of the Department of Wildlife and National Parks.
“There’s still enough habitat to support that many tigers,” said Shepherd, who is based in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia. “If there’s enough habitat and food, and there isn’t illegal poaching, the tiger population will bounce back.”
The issue was highlighted on Jan. 5, when a truck carrying four decapitated tiger carcasses was stopped in Thailand. Newspapers around the region printed pictures of the animals’ heads being held up by the Thai police, who said they believed the animals came from Malaysia, and were being smuggled to China.
Environmental group WWF estimates there are fewer than 3,000 tigers left in the world. There are probably more on the shelves of medicine stores or in tiger farms than in forests, the group said. Tigers are bred commercially in farms in Thailand and China.
The animal and wildlife trafficking industry may be worth more than $20 billion a year, according to a 2008 U.S. Congressional report. Tiger bones go for $400 per kilo while pelts can fetch $50,000 in China, Havocscope said.
Ground tiger bone is used in some traditional Chinese medicine to treat arthritis or increase sexual potency. Dried tiger penis, called the tiger’s “whip,” is considered an aphrodisiac and a tonic for enhancing male sexual performance.
China’s largest herbal-medicine shops including the publicly traded Beijing Tongrentang Co. and 600-year-old Heniantang said they don’t sell any remedy containing tiger because it is against the law.
Tiger bones appear among the ingredients of products in Beijing’s “family planning clinics” -- sex shops typically lit with pink neon lights. An outlet across the road from Heniantang’s main store near the Forbidden City in Beijing sells packets of “Emperor’s Pills” that claim to include seal and tiger penises. At 120 yuan ($17.55) a pack, they promise to increase testosterone and help enlarge the male organ.
Tigers may also end up on the plates of diners willing to pay for endangered exotic meats, along with pangolins, bears, snakes, tortoises, and most recently owls, said Shepherd.
“It’s just fashion -- people wanting to try different kinds of wild meat,” said Shepherd. “Because of it, they’re going to go extinct.”
China is the biggest consumer of exotic meats such as tiger and pangolin, said Chumphon Sukkaseam, senior officer of the Asean Wildlife Enforcement Network Program Coordination Unit.
Bo said he tasted tiger meat a decade ago at a restaurant 20 minutes from Kuala Lumpur. Cooked with garlic and spices, it tasted “like any other meat,” he said.
K. Ullas Karanth, director at India’s Centre for Wildlife Studies, said Malaysia’s success would depend on protecting the tigers’ food.
“If the prey numbers can be increased substantially, a doubling of tiger numbers in 12 years is not biologically unrealistic,” he said.
In a Jan. 11 raid, Malaysian Wildlife Department officers found a 500,000 ringgit haul including 47 legs and paws of the endangered Malaysian sun bear and 319 skinned owls, said Saharudin Anan, law enforcement director of the Department of Wildlife and National Parks.
There were 112 such cases of smuggling protected species in 2008, of which 44 went to court, said Saharudin.
The seizures are “just the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “What is not reported, we don’t know.”