MYCAT rallies the public to help save tigers from extinction
As the truck hurtled down the dirt road between the forests, those of us who sat on its open back clung tightly to our seats as the wind rushed up forcefully against us. Someone joked about how frightening it would be if an elephant suddenly came out of the forest to chase us – calling to mind the scene in Jurassic Park when the T-Rex looms menacingly over Jeff Goldblum's character at the back of the speeding jeep – and we all broke into laughter, feeling in good spirits.
We may not have been in an artificial theme park populated by cloned prehistoric creatures, but our environment was still exciting; we were in Taman Negara, Malaysia's largest national park, which encompasses an ancient tropical rainforest that is home to its own colourful cast of characters. Unfortunately, many of them are in danger of suffering the same fate as the dinosaurs of the Jurassic age. If the Tyrannosaurus Rex is the poster child for the species of that era, then its contemporary equivalent in Malaysia is the Malayan Tiger, which is facing the threat of extinction.
Earlier this year, the loss of six tigers from the wild, with five dead, in the span of a single month cast a pall on wildlife conservation efforts. The race to save Malayan Tigers is already an uphill battle as their numbers have rapidly declined over the years. With only about 250 to 340 of them left in the wild according to wildlife experts, these creatures are teetering on the tightrope of survival.
The Malaysian Conservation Alliance for Tigers (MYCAT), a coalition of conservation organisations, is working hard to ensure that a future without tigers does not come to pass. Given the magnitude of the problem, an all-hands-on-deck approach is warranted. MYCAT believes everyone can play a role in ensuring the survival of the Malayan Tiger, and they have sounded the clarion call through their Citizen Action for Tigers (CAT) programme.
Through this programme, volunteers participate in guided hikes known as CAT Walks at the Sungai Yu Tiger Corridor. Located just beyond the western border of Taman Negara, the corridor connects the large tiger habitats of Taman Negara and the Main Range. These excursions into tiger territory are aimed at discouraging poaching activities, which are a huge threat to tigers and other wildlife. CAT Walkers also help protect wildlife by dismantling snares and traps that they come across.
“In the early days of 2010-2011, we did not have the resources to conduct CAT Walks regularly, and the programme was kept alive by the efforts of a few dedicated volunteers. Now, there are CAT Walks at least two weekends a month and we have seen the impact of the programme as poaching has decreased in the area,” says Wong Pui May, MYCAT coordinator. Since the first group of CAT Walkers set foot in the forest, cumulatively 1,133 volunteers have joined the programme, resulting in the detection and dismantling of 136 snares. The CAT Walk has also attracted the participation of organisations and companies such as The Body Shop. Last year, its managing director, Datin Mina Cheah-Foong not only took part in a CAT Walk with her colleagues, the company also donated more than USD46,000 (RM190,000) to MYCAT’s conservation efforts.
One of the highlights of the CAT Walk is the opportunity to set up camera traps that record and monitor wildlife and retrieve the images from them. “While it is difficult to actually see wildlife in Malaysia’s dense tropical rainforest, images captured on our camera traps show the diverse wildlife that calls the forest home, and that is benefitting from the protection provided by CAT Walkers,” says Dr. Kae Kawanishi, MYCAT’s General Manager.
During my time on the CAT Walk, the images from a camera trap provided a glimpse of the motley population inhabiting Malaysia's rainforests. These images inspire a visceral reaction that drives home our connection to wildlife and the larger environment. They remind us that the denizens of the forest and their ecosystem are our natural heritage; their protection should be a collective responsibility and their loss should be felt by all, not just wildlife conservationists.
Aside from CAT Walks, other opportunities to contribute include participating in MYCAT's outreach programmes, which take place in schools, night markets, and shopping centres, as well as supporting their conservation campaigns. One of their ongoing campaigns is to collect signatures for a petition demanding 'No More Dead Tigers'. Among other demands, the petition calls for maximum sentences to be handed out to criminals convicted of killing tigers and other endangered animals, and priority for maintaining tiger habitats under forest cover.
“The petition aims to raise awareness among the public and provide an avenue to take action. It highlights the plight of our Malayan tigers and the threats they face such as poaching and habitat loss,” says Wong. “In 2007, MYCAT launched a petition to call for the then Wildlife Protection Act 1972 to be updated. Over 56,000 people signed the petition and in 2010, the Wildlife Conservation Act was passed. We now have one of the strongest laws in the region and we need the people’s support to ensure that this Act is used to its full potential.”
In the long run, MYCAT's goal is to halt and reverse the decline of the tiger population in Malaysia. As apex predators, it was not long ago that tigers ruled Malaysian forests, their numbers 10 times the current population. Now we are on the precipice of a future where they may no longer even appear on camera trap footage. The writing may be on the wall but it is not yet carved in stone. There is still time to prevent a future where tigers are the leading characters in a movie about the revival of an extinct species and its disastrous consequences. The real catastrophe we should try to avoid is the extermination of tigers in our forests.
“If it were not for the targeted conservation efforts by many parties in Malaysia, we would have already lost our tigers by now due to the high demand for tiger parts in other countries. The work we do does make a difference, and the contributions of our 1,596 volunteers are equally important,” says Wong. “Giving up is not an option as long as (tigers) still roam the rainforest of Peninsular Malaysia.”