Thriving Tigers, Thriving Forests

Saving tigers and protecting nature go hand in hand. Explore Malaysia’s Belum Temengor Forest Complex, where a government-community partnership is delivering a beacon of hope for tigers in Southeast Asia.

The crunching of leaves blended with sounds of the forest as animals sauntered into and out of the field of view. The high-definition camera traps captured the presence of an impressive array of animals—including barking deer, clouded leopard, langur, dhole, tapir, elephant, and sun bear. Local Indigenous community members, WWF-Malaysia staff, and the photographer Emmanuel Rondeau were all thrilled when they reviewed the videos and photos, but they were all waiting for something more. Finally, five months later, they got it: the image of a tiger.

The presence of tigers, an apex species, indicates a healthy ecosystem for myriad wildlife and plants. People too—especially those living in and near tiger landscapes—benefit from the food, freshwater, and economic opportunities healthy forests provide. Unfortunately, tiger numbers in Malaysia have plummeted in the recent past. Today, fewer than 150 tigers roam its forests, down from 3,000 in the 1950s. Without action, the big cats could become extinct in the country in the next five years. That’s why, in Malaysia’s Royal Belum State Park, the government is working with local communities and WWF-Malaysia to turn the situation around.

The Place

The densely packed foliage of Royal Belum State Park.

The Indigenous village of Klewang in Royal Belum.

Sitting on the northern border of Peninsular Malaysia, Royal Belum State Park is thought to be one of the oldest rain forests in the world, and drone footage reveals acres upon acres of densely packed foliage. So why, amid so much lush greenery, is biodiversity struggling? While climate change and unsustainable industrial and agricultural practices are wreaking havoc for species across Southeast Asia, in Royal Belum, something else recently came to light.

In 2017, hundreds of poachers’ snares were found there, which had a devastating effect on the forest’s wildlife. According to a 2018–19 WWF-Malaysia survey, Royal Belum had only 10 tigers. “I just couldn’t believe there were so few,” says Christopher Wong, tiger lead, WWF-Malaysia. The bad news was a wakeup call. WWF-Malaysia partnered with the Orang Asli, the local Indigenous community, to form Project Stampede: patrol teams tasked with monitoring the forests and removing snares.

Over the next few years, they reduced the number of snares in the forest by 98%. In 2022, zero snares were detected in the forests, and more recently, camera trap footage showed several cubs with their mother. This was the first sign that tiger numbers here could rebound.

Antipoaching patrol team members Zainal Abu, Yahya Charol, Azib Adek, Merapi Mat Razi, and Raihan Adoi find Sambar deer tracks in Royal Belum State Park.

Nor Fauziah (left) and Norlia (right) in the village of Sungai Raba, an Orang Asli village located in the Temengor forest.

The Camera Traps

Malayan tapir Tapirus indicus
Clouded leopard Neofelis nebulosa
Dhole Cuon alpinus
Indochinese leopard Panthera pardus delacouri
Southern pig-tailed macaque Macaca nemestrina
Asian elephant Elephas maximus
Sun bear Helarctos malayanus

WWF-Malaysia and the government have made progress on several fronts over the past three to five years. In addition to Project Stampede, Malaysia established a National Tiger Task Force chaired by the Prime Minister in 2022 to figure out how to adopt successful tiger conservation strategies from India and Nepal. And according to Malaysia’s latest budget announced by the Prime Minister, 50 million ringgit (around $10.5 million) has been allocated to hire 1,500 people in 2023, including local Indigenous community members to patrol Malaysian forests. Finally, hundreds of camera traps have been set up to monitor the status of wildlife and threats to the landscape. “Without the camera traps, we wouldn’t know tigers were there,” says Afif Wafiy, senior field biologist, Tiger Conservation Programme, WWF-Malaysia. “We wouldn’t know if our efforts were working.”

The Global Strategy

The presence of tigers indicates ecosystem health and, by extension, proof of successful conservation interventions. In 2010, TX2—a global collaboration among 13 tiger range country governments and international organizations—committed to doubling the number of wild tigers by 2022. For WWF, this meant pulling together the considerable, yet sometimes disconnected, tiger-related activities within our network under one coordinating umbrella. Thanks to TX2, and as reported by the Global Tiger Forum this year, global tiger numbers have grown to an estimated 5,574 from an estimated 3,200 in 2010.

Looking forward, WWF’s goal is to help increase or stabilize wild tiger populations and distribution in 22 landscapes across their existing and historical range by 2034. Among other actions, we are working toward securing connected habitats so that conservation areas and ecological corridors are well managed and secure for tigers. We are also working to successfully return tigers to key sites in their historical range through reintroduction and natural dispersal. And we’re expanding conservation in all tiger landscapes in a way that ensures Indigenous peoples’ and local communities’ acceptance, participation, and well-being.

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