Rare tiger sighting raises Southeast Asia conservation hopes

Camera traps recorded three tigers in an area of western Thailand where the big cat had not been seen for four years.

    The conservation group Panthera released footage on Wednesday of three tigers caught by its cameras in the country's western forests [Panthera/Al Jazeera]
    The conservation group Panthera released footage on Wednesday of three tigers caught by its cameras in the country's western forests [Panthera/Al Jazeera]

    Camera traps in a forest in western Thailand have captured footage of tigers in an area where the endangered animals have not been seen for four years, conservation group Panthera said on Wednesday, raising hopes for the species' survival in Southeast Asia.

    The video and photographs show three male tigers roaming at night, with one walking directly towards the camera and sniffing the lens.

    "We are excited about this discovery," Kritsana Kaewplang, country director for Panthera in Thailand, said of the footage which was released on Global Tiger Day.

    Describing the footage as "very exciting", John Goodrich, Panthera's chief scientist said: "It's a good indicator that what we're doing is working. We're starting to see the recovery of tiger numbers in the area."

    There are estimated to be about 160 Indochinese tigers left in the wild in Thailand, which has stepped up its conservation efforts over the last 10 years. Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia have already lost their tigers while Myanmar is thought to have just 23 left. 

    Southeast Asia is a major focus in the fight to save the world's big cats, whose numbers globally have plummeted from about 100,000 a century ago to about 3,900 today.

    Thailand tiger
    An undated handout photo from Thailand's Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation-Panthera-Zoological Society of London-RCU released on July 29 shows a tiger in a remote region of western Thailand [Handout/DNP-Panthera-ZSL-RCU/AFP]

    Kritsana, who has been working with Thailand's Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation and other organisations, said the sightings mean Thailand is on the right track trying to preserve tigers and their prey.

    "The next important step for us is that we have to try and make the connecting routes of each forest area accommodating for them, in order for the tigers to roam safely," said Kritsana.

    Poaching threat

    A database of Thailand's tiger population showed two of the tigers had come from the northern part of the forest to the south, while the third had not been documented before, she said.

    "In more than 20 years of fieldwork, it's some of the best (footage) I've seen," said Eileen Larney, the Zoological Society of London's country manager for Thailand.

    "To witness apex predators, like tigers, returning to forests means the ecosystem is recovering, which is good for all wildlife."

    The recent success is partly down to specially designed "PoacherCams", Goodrich said. The cameras automatically distinguish between people and animals, sending pictures of potential poachers to local police in real time.

    Poachers, who kill the animals for their skin and other parts, have also brought the Malayan tiger, which roams the forested central spine of the Malayan Peninsula, to the brink of extinction. As few as 150 are thought to be left in the wild.

    "When we lose our tigers we will lose our heritage and lose our symbol of courage to move forward," Balu Perumal of the Malaysian Nature Society told a webinar on the Malayan tiger on Wednesday as he urged people to do more to save the big cat.

    "More importantly, we would lose a fellow citizen of Malaysia." 

    Malaysia tigers
    An image of a poacher caught on a camera trap set up by conservation researchers. Poaching is one of the biggest threats to tigers in Southeast Asia [File: WWF Malaysia/Al Jazeera]

    Conservationists have been calling on the government to deploy soldiers to the forest to combat the theft of the country's unique wildlife, following the lead of countries like India where a "boots on the ground" response has helped tiger numbers recover.

    Tigers in the region are also threatened by habitat loss and the fragmentation of forests, when roads, logging and other developments isolate small populations, leading to inbreeding and a lack of genetic diversity.

    "The focus right now needs to be on Southeast Asia, where tigers are in the most trouble," Goodrich told AFP news agency.

    However, "If you don't have government support, it doesn't work."

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    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies