Is Cambodia’s plan to reintroduce tigers doomed to fail?

As recently as 1999, Cambodia was home to one of the world’s largest tiger populations. Today the Indochinese tiger is considered functionally extinct in the country.

In 1999, Cambodia had, by some estimates, the world’s second-highest tiger population. Within a decade, the big cats had been all but eliminated from the country due to poaching and habitat loss. In 2007, a lone Indochinese tiger (Panthera tigris corbetti) was captured by camera trap roaming the lush Mondulkiri Province in the country’s east. None have been spotted since.

Now, the Cambodian government is looking to change that. The Ministry of Environment announced in late September that it is moving forward with a plan, along with the WWF, to reintroduce tigers to Cambodia — a scheme that has drawn criticism from wildlife experts across the globe due to weak rule of law, rampant poaching and the destruction of Cambodia’s environment through illegal logging and other practices.

In a Sept. 25 Facebook post, the Ministry announced that they would bring tigers from India – two males and five to six females, officials said – to the Srepok Wildlife Sanctuary in Mondulkiri Province. Seng Teak, country director for WWF Cambodia, told Mongabay the project, with a budget of around $30 million, would have its initial “Tiger Action Plan,” a detailed outline of the project, completed before the end of 2017.

The mission to revive the world’s dangerously low tiger population has become a global affair. In 2010, the governments of the world’s 13 tiger range countries committed to doubling the number of tigers worldwide by 2022, the next Chinese year of the tiger. In Cambodia, tigers have also become something of a lofty dream, a symbol of rejuvenation and a return to better times for Cambodia’s environment.

A view of the forests within Mondulkiri Province, where tigers are planned to be relocated in Cambodia. Photo by Photasia via VisualHunt.

Though the Wildlife Alliance is planning on opening three ranger stations and hiring rangers to protect the tigers, as well as investigating a park in the Cardamom mountains as a potential habitat, some experts are still uncertain if Cambodia can support a thriving tiger population.

When the plan was initially introduced last year, K Ullas Karanth, an Indian conservationist, was blunt in his criticism.

“I do not think the required 1,000-2,000-square-kilometer area of prey-rich, people-free and livestock-free habitat is available in Cambodia at this time to seed and establish a viable tiger population,” he told Indian news outlet Live Mint.

But Thomas Gray, director of science and global development at Wildlife Alliance, said that the chosen Srepok Wildlife Sanctuary is, in fact, a suitable choice for the tiger habitat.

“[It’s a] fantastic expanse of extremely good quality habitat that remains relatively remote and of relatively good quality,” Gray said. “The amount of potential tiger prey there, while probably still declining, is higher than anywhere else in the country, and probably higher than most other places in mainland Southeast Asia, including where there still are tigers.

“And so the ecological conditions there are pretty good for potential tiger recoveries. The issue, of course, is law enforcement and protected area management.”

Cambodian police and wildlife rangers stand next to confiscated banteng skulls near the border of Srepok Wildlife Sanctuary in Mondulkiri Province. Photo courtesy of WWF.

Law and Order

The decline of the tiger was staggering throughout the 20th century. The WWF now estimates that some 3,890 tigers remain in the wild, down from more than 100,000 in 1900. And while the world’s tiger count is said to be rising, Cambodia has not exactly proven itself as a haven for wildlife. In this country, where widespread corruption and endemic poverty can make poaching an attractive means of earning a living, and where record deforestation clears potential tiger habitats, some are skeptical of the country’s ability to keep tigers safe.

“If you want to reintroduce any animal, you have to first solve the problem that caused their extirpation or extinction,” said John Goodrich, senior director of the tiger program at Panthera, an organization devoted to wild cat conservation. “In Cambodia, that’s very clearly poaching, poaching of tigers and prey. Clearly they haven’t solved that problem.”

Indeed, animals like the pangolin and sun bear still find themselves prone to trafficking and poaching in Cambodia. In an article published last month in Biodiversity and Conservation, 10 wildlife scientists detail the incredible number of homemade snares that still dot the landscape within Southeast Asia. Between 2010 and 2015, more than 200,000 of the cheap and easy-to-make snares were removed from five sites across the region. And upwards of 60 percent of those snares were found in Cambodia, including within the Srepok Wildlife Sanctuary, where Cambodia’s new tigers are planned to be relocated.

Sao Sopheap, a spokesperson for Cambodia’s Ministry of Environment, said that the government is implementing a number of measures to combat wildlife degradation in the country, including “law enforcement activities,” more rangers on the ground and a protected area system that now spans more than 28,900 square miles or roughly 41 percent of the entire country. “[We’re sending a] bigger signal to country, to community, to general public that the government is very serious about conservation,” he said.

Tiger in Cambodia. Photo by Rhett Butler/Mongabay.

Tiger Tourism

The reintroduction of the tiger to Cambodia would certainly signal a step forward in terms of wildlife protection and — for a country that suffered from decades of war— stability. Even the upper echelons of the government, including the country’s notoriously autocratic prime minister, Hun Sen, have expressed their support for the project. At an August conservation forum in Phnom Penh, the premier made a swathe of promises including $1,000 each for more than 300 communities to invest in their local forests, a 20 percent increase in the budget for the Ministry of Environment and a vocal show of support for the tiger plan in Mondulkiri Province.

Despite some public proclamations of goodwill, the government has not been shy about some of its more profitable intentions behind the project. While conservation and the preservation of an endangered species is likely important to officials at the Ministry of Environment, there is a considerable amount of money to be made in tourism, which is one of the most lucrative parts of Cambodia’s economy. In addition to the country’s famed Angkor Temple Complex in the north and the pristine beaches on the southern coast, officials hope a wildlife attraction in the eastern provinces would help draw more tourists, especially from nearby China and Malaysia.

In early October, Thong Khon, the Minister of Tourism, was blunt about the government’s intentions to monetize Cambodia’s east.

“The Ministry of Tourism aims to develop the northeast, especially Mondulkiri, to make it one of the country’s major tourist draws, particularly for ecotourism and wildlife,” he said.

The Cambodian government seems to have dollar signs in its eyes when it comes to tiger reintroduction, which worries experts who say that officials may be prioritizing profit over protection. But those involved in the project itself say that without the revenue brought in by tourism, there may not have been a reintroduction plan in the first place.

“[W]e talk about conserving tigers, but we have to justify the benefit of tigers for bringing economic benefits for local people and for the nation as well,” said WWF’s Seng Teak.

“[I]t is important to be clear,” he added, “that by saving tigers we are saving much more.”

Cambodian police investigate illegal timber trafficking within Srepok Wildlife Sanctuary. Photo courtesy of WWF.

Moving Forward

Panthera’s Goodrich explained that a tiger tourism scheme might not play out as soon as officials hope. In places like India’s Kanha Tiger Reserve in Madyha Pradesh, where tourists buzzing about in jeeps can catch glimpses of the big cats, it was not an overnight success.

“This is something that would be developed over the course of decades,” he said. “You have to build up the tiger numbers and then you have to condition them to tourists. One of the reasons it works in India is there’s been jeeps full of tourists driving around these tiger reserves for decades, and some tigers become conditioned to that and they don’t run away and hide when a jeep approaches.

“That’s going to take a long time to develop in Cambodia.”

While there is a resounding “no” among an obstinate group of tiger experts as to whether Cambodia is ready to bring the big cats back at the moment, they often say that it doesn’t mean that the country is not up to the task sometime in the future.

What then would Cambodia need to make itself ready for a healthy population of tigers?

“It isn’t necessarily that complicated,” said Goodrich.“Tigers need three things: they need space with good habitat. Tigers are generalists so good habitat just means some kind of cover that they can hunt in. They need prey. And they need to be left alone. They need protection from people, they need protection from poaching. Those are the conditions that Cambodia needs to create for tigers to thrive.

“That’s going to be a huge challenge in Cambodia,” he said, “to this day.”

Banner image: an Indochinese tiger, by Rhett Butler/Mongabay.

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