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Thursday, July 28, 2016

5 days in Malaysia: making tiger conservation real

Posted by: Fred W. Koontz, PhD, Vice President of Field Conservation
Photos by: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo except where noted

Taman Negara National Park.

Each year, I travel to Malaysia to meet with colleagues working on Malayan tiger conservation. These trips are essential for good partner communications and ensuring the zoo’s field support is effectively placed. But my most recent visit in June was something quite different. This time, I traveled to Malaysia with 13 of the nation's top tiger zookeepers in tow, including those from National Zoo, Brookfield Zoo, San Francisco Zoo and Zoo Miami, to name just a few.

The group included Woodland Park Zoo tiger keeper, Christine Anne, who had been eagerly preparing for this trip for what seemed like a long time. Christine knew this was an opportunity to see tiger habitat, learn about threats to their survival, discuss conservation solutions with tiger experts and meet local people sharing land with big cats. Equally important, this trip would make Christine an even more informed tiger expert, and give her firsthand knowledge to share with visitors to the zoo’s Banyan Wilds exhibit.

Also joining the expedition was zoo photographer, Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren. I was delighted to be camera-free for once and see the forest beyond my Nikon’s viewfinder! Jeremy’s photos enhance this article, and keep an eye out for his upcoming videos featuring interviews with our partner biologists and rangers.

Woodland Park Zoo Tiger Keeper Christine Anne.

WPZ photographer Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren (left) recording interviews with tiger biologists. Photo: Fred Koontz/WPZ.


Tiger Team members, along with visitors to our Banyan Wilds exhibit, have learned previously of Woodland Park Zoo’s and Panthera’s technical and financial support of the Malaysian non-profit Rimba. But most of our big cat fans are not aware that the zoo also supports MYCAT (the Malaysian Conservation Alliance for Tigers) through our Wildlife Survival Fund. MYCAT is an alliance of the Malaysian Nature Society, TRAFFIC Southeast Asia, Wildlife Conservation Society-Malaysia Program and WWF-Malaysia, supported by the Department of Wildlife and National Parks Peninsular Malaysia for joint implementation of the National Tiger Conservation Action Plan for Malaysia. 

One of MYCAT’s key citizen conservation activities is known as a Cat Walk. A Citizen Action for Tigers (CAT) Walk is an anti-poaching, anti-deforestation surveillance walk conducted by volunteers. The walks are guided treks through the Sungai Yu Tiger Corridor, a priority biodiversity area adjacent to Taman Negara National Park. Cat Walkers participate in tiger conservation activities by exploring the forest, reporting signs of illegal activity, disarming snares and checking camera traps to monitor the presence of wildlife. These walks and other MYCAT citizen conservation efforts are empowering members of the public to help save forest habitat and Malayan tigers, whose wild population—found only in Peninsular Malaysia—is about 300. 

Understanding the importance of well-informed educators all over the world, MYCAT created a special Cat Walk for tiger keepers and zoo docents called Realm of the Tiger. Our spirited bunch was only the second ever set of Realm Cat Walkers, preceded by a group of keepers from Singapore Zoo.

Meropoh, Malaysia, our expedition base.

After long flights from the states, our group gathered in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital. After a day of city sightseeing (including, of course, a visit to the National Zoo to see a tiger up close), we set off with our MYCAT guides for the 4-hour van ride to the village of Meropoh, our expedition base near the Sungai Yu Tiger Corridor and west entrance of Taman Negara National Park. From here we set off for five days exploring and protecting the Park and Tiger Corridor.

Tiger expert and MYCAT General Manager Dr. Kae Kawanishi served as our expedition leader. She was assisted by field biologists Ashleigh Seow and Suzalinur Manja Bidin. 

Kae is a tiger conservation hero. For her PhD research at University of Florida, she conducted the first major Malayan tiger ecology and population study in Taman Negara in 1998. She has gone on to play a leadership role in drafting and implementing Malaysia’s tiger conservation strategy. After a few days in the rugged and steeply-hilled Taman Negara, we were in awe of her endurance and optimism.

Dr. Kae Kawanishi always at home in tiger forest!

Each day, our group set out to walk the forest, looking for signs of tigers, other wildlife and poacher activity. Cat Walkers provide volunteer “boots and eyes” on the ground. Taman Negara is a million acres (the same size of Washington’s Olympic National Park); the government cannot afford to hire the ideal number of professional rangers for the Park and Tiger Corridor. So, as MYCAT likes to say, with Cat Walks, everyone can participate in active wildlife conservation. 

Not one snare was found in our five days trekking! Kae explained that because of regular Cat Walks over the past five years, there are fewer poachers in the Sungai Yu Tiger Corridor now. More signs of large mammals are even reappearing! If we had found snares or other signs of illegal activity, MYCAT would have reported the find to local law enforcement for investigation.

Christine and the trekkers had the opportunity to set up and retrieve images from camera traps, devices essential to discovering and monitoring tigers in dense tropical forests where scientists rarely see live tigers or most mammals.  After all her years spent in the forest, even Kae has never seen a wild Malayan tiger!

Zoo keepers serving as volunteer observers searching for illegal activity.

Christine sets a camera trap in hopes of detecting a wild tiger.

No tigers detected on our trip, but here is an example from the same trail I walked! Photo: MYCAT

While hiking in the Sungai Yu Tiger Corridor, we were impressed to see areas of elevated highways that serve as safe passages for wildlife moving from the Park to nearby forest reserves.  

Sadly, we also came across cut forests, chopped and burned to the ground without necessary permits to make room for agriculture. It was sobering as we stood among the dead stumps of what once were the trees of a lush and life-supporting forest. Happily, Kae described a new re-planting project that is being undertaken with MYCAT staff, volunteers and local villagers.

Elevated highways serve as safe wildlife crossings. Photo: Fred Koontz/Woodland Park Zoo.

A logged forest looks more like a moonscape than a living landscape.

Just one night into our jungle trek, our exhausted group crawled into jungle hammocks under the protection of mosquito nets and rainflies. Eventually we fell asleep under the incredible night sky, strewn with millions of brilliant stars normally hidden in our urban skies at home. 

Here away from it all, we could dream of how the world must have once looked, and how it could look again if people choose the path to save this incredible forest and its inhabitants.

The condition of the night sky is a measure of wilderness.

All too soon, our adventure came to an end. It was a harsh trek through diverse and challenging terrain, but one thing was constant over the five days: tiger talk. Keepers affectionately described the tigers they care for like our own Eko, Liem and Olan, while the field biologists told stories of wild tigers. There were many moments of laughter and some of tears.  

Regardless of where they are from, these 13 keepers and tiger experts have in common a deep love and respect for one of the most beautiful and fierce animals on earth. And each works every day to help tigers survive. Walking through the realm of the tiger provided our keepers with an experience they will communicate to millions of people who come to our zoos. But perhaps just as important was the building of the bonds among our U.S. keepers and their Malaysian conservation colleagues, fueled by passion and resolve to save wild tigers.  

Ever try to catch a fish with your bare hands?
Time spent in tiger forest: makes conservation real!

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