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Walk with me through Tiger Country

Posted by: Fred Koontz, PhD, Vice President of Field Conservation

These days, bad news is easy to come by in stories about tiger conservation. But I’d like to show you how the power of ordinary, caring people is changing that. Recently, I joined a group of folks in Malaysia dedicated to protecting tiger landscapes from the grip of wildlife criminals. Come with me on a CAT Walk through tiger country and see for yourself what conservation in a tiger hotspot looks and feels like.

With massive, towering trees, Taman Negara National Park, created in 1939, is often referred to as the crown jewel of the world’s rain forests. Estimated to be 130 million years old, it is nearly twice as old as the Amazon rain forest. Woodland Park Zoo is part of a new, 10-year project with Panthera and Malaysian colleagues to save Malayan tigers in and around this park. Photo: Fred Koontz/WPZ. 

Last June, on a Malaysian site visit for WPZ’s Field Conservation Department, I joined a Citizen Conservationist trip organized by the Malaysian Conservation Alliance for Tigers (MYCAT) and funded by the Zoological Society of London’s 21st Century Tiger and the Malaysian public. MYCAT’s volunteers, an invaluable presence in the forest, monitor animal activity and deter tiger poaching. Often traveling several hours from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s bustling capital city, they enthusiastically take on intense jungle heat and steep, muddy terrain. Most importantly, they bring an infectious, can-do attitude. My lack of leech socks notwithstanding, this experience filled me with hope for the tiger’s future.

CAT Walk volunteers gather for the journey through tiger country. Photo: Fred Koontz/WPZ.

Over two days, we traversed parts of the Yu River Wildlife Corridor, an area that serves as a vital connection between Taman Negara National Park, the largest protected area in Malaysia, and a larger landscape important for tigers and wildlife to the west. It moves me to see citizen conservation on the rise, especially among Malaysia’s under-40 crowd. Some CAT (Citizen Action for Tigers) Walks have wait lists. Teachers, office workers, tourists, “voluntourists” and  ordinary folks from cities and local villages make long treks in this important area for a week or weekend, unpaid, to reclaim wild spaces from poachers. Citizen conservationists are not law enforcement and don’t confront criminals. Rather, they supplement law enforcement officers by increasing the number of eyes and boots on the ground, and they collect data to help enforce wildlife conservation laws. A key aspect of their work is providing safety for endangered Malayan tigers so that this highly endangered species can recover its population in the Taman Negara region.  MYCAT researchers or park authorities determine specific walking routes as poaching hotspots or as common poacher access routes into protected forests. Research shows that low-impact recreational activities, such as hiking, camping, photography or bird watching in a wildlife area deter poaching without affecting wildlife. Poachers are far more disturbed by the presence of people than wildlife!

It’s no ordinary walk in the park, but it’s definitely an experience of wonder. CAT Walk volunteers do extraordinary things to save tigers by supplementing official anti-poaching patrols. Photo: Fred Koontz/WPZ.

Last June, WPZ’s president and CEO, Dr. Deborah Jensen, shared with you Malaysia’s national plan to save its tigers from the precipice of extinction, and how the zoo’s new 10-year tiger conservation project, in collaboration with Panthera and Malaysian colleagues, was kick-started with a project that helped to protect core breeding areas in Taman Negara and trained professional rangers in enhanced anti-poaching techniques.

The tiger’s last strongholds stand on the edge of a precipice, largely due to human activity. Protecting core breeding sites and forest corridors is essential to the Malayan tiger’s recovery. Photo: Derek Dammon Photography, taken at Cincinnati Zoo.

A CAT Walk is no ordinary walk in the park. Weekend and holiday walks are a priority because opportunistic poachers work extra hard at these times when wildlife and forestry enforcement personnel are not on duty. Our weekend mission? To locate and deactivate snares, gather data from and replace camera traps, report GPS coordinates of suspected poacher activity to the Wildlife Crime Hotline, and deepen our relationship of care and respect for Malaysia’s rich wildlife heritage. We begin by observing how wilderness and development collide around Taman Negara. For example, an elevated highway under construction illustrates how Malaysian ingenuity is aiming to pursue the future while also preserving the wild. These “green” bridges for cars and trucks can provide safe underpasses for tigers, elephants and other wildlife as the animals move from one protected area to another.

Understanding how tigers and other wildlife make use of underpasses will be an important research topic when this elevated highway opens in coming months. Photo: Fred Koontz/WPZ.

Seeking a trailhead, our entry into the forest is obscured by acres of monotonous palm oil plantations flanking the park’s lush, dense lowlands. In stark contrast to Taman Negara’s ancient and towering groves, fast-growing palm oil plantations remain forever young as they are harvested and replanted intensively. We are reminded that even in this remote area, human-driven monoculture is expanding, nipping away at the forest’s feet. 

Malaysia is the world’s largest producer of palm oil. Photo: Fred Koontz/WPZ.

The combination of recreation and hard work is yielding great payoff. From day one, it’s clear that MYCAT’s innovative efforts with citizen conservation are effective. Our guide helps us navigate dense vegetation, narrow trails and, in some places, no trails. One CAT Walk participant falls into a stream, but still smiling, gets out quickly and safely. As sweat beads on my forehead, I note how rigorous the muddy hills are even for the youngest volunteers. Even so, no one complains and we march on. Shortly, we are rewarded by locating a tiger-monitoring camera trap which the CAT Walk leader had asked us to find. We download digital images and swap out equipment, which we secure onto the tree trunks at tiger height.

Camera trap technology helps identify key habitats tigers use to hunt and breed in the Taman Negara region. Photo: Fred Koontz/WPZ.
Data from camera traps allow park rangers to predict routes for anti-poaching patrols. Photo: Kae Kawanishi, MYCAT

In a forest immediately adjacent to the park, we come upon a poachers’ camp camouflaged under off-trail bushes. Some camps, like this one, are rudimentary. Part-time opportunists haul in a few snares and basic camping supplies. Increasingly, however, the rudimentary is giving way to highly organized illegal trafficking by well-funded international groups. Their planning and precision elevate the killing of tigers and other wildlife to a whole new level. Rising threats to tigers and other wildlife call for stringent, front-line protection by professional law enforcement agencies. No doubt citizen CAT Walks play a crucial supporting role to these urgent conservation efforts.

Evidence of a poacher’s camp. Photo: Fred Koontz/WPZ.

A strength of landscape-level conservation is that it saves much more than a single animal species. Within a complex habitat, directing protection to flagship species, such as Malayan tigers or elephants, is like putting a protective umbrella over thousands of other species, including the tiger’s prey. Preserving diversity in the web of life sustains healthy ecosystems, which serve us all for the long haul. 

Conserving apex predators, those at the top of the food chain, such as tigers, benefits the sustainability of many other forest species in complex ecosystems.

Day Two finds us deeper in the forest in an unprotected part of the wildlife corridor, encountering signs of other animals in this web threatened by wildlife crime. A cold, hard fact of CAT Walks is that, outside of occasionally amazing camera trap images, finding evidence of poaching can be gruesome. Sun bear body parts are prized in traditional Asian medicine and highly valuable on the black market. We encounter deep scratch marks on a tree trunk, belying a sun bear’s long, futile struggle to escape a snare. Its skeletal remains had been documented the previous January. 

With one of its paws painfully trapped in a poacher’s snare, a sun bear had clawed away a layer of this rubber tree’s bark in its desperate attempt to save itself. Photo: Fred Koontz/WPZ.

As a team member records the sun bear site data, quietness descends and emotions well up inside of us. I think about the delicate reality of all the forest’s species, their lives connected by eons of ecosystem biology, only to have their species’ demise brought on by a short period of human activity. But I am reminded that that’s why we’re here: to help reverse this trend. And there’s essential work to do. So we continue on, our resolve and purpose tested.

Snare hidden in a tree. Photo: Fred Koontz/WPZ.

Soon, a great reward comes to us. Members of our volunteer group unearth a cache of snares hidden in a tree trunk. Our earlier quietness transforms into rousing pride and celebration. Immediately we report the find to authorities through MYCAT’s Wildlife Crime Hotline. Confiscating these snares represents very real animalsperhaps even several Malayan tigerssaved from the grip of poaching.

CAT Walkers celebrate finding and confiscating a cache of snares hidden in a tree trunk. Photos: Fred Koontz/WPZ.

This experience is about making a difference on the ground for tigers, literally and figuratively. The find alone is enough to make the muddy hills, the sweat, and the leeches worth it. I know that the other CAT Walkers feel the same way.

Margaret Mead urged us never to underestimate the power of a small, dedicated group of people to change the world. MYCAT and its CAT Walks are living proof of that truism. But it doesn’t come cheap. MYCAT has to pay for the CAT coordinator and volunteer coordinator’s salaries, vehicles, insurance for volunteers, costs of training volunteer leaders, volunteer leaders’ stipend, camera trap technology, GPS units, supplies, radios, training, first aid and more. CAT Walk participants actually pay their own way for transportation, housing and food. 

With additional support, MYCAT seeks to expand its leadership in building the citizen conservation movement. CAT Walks are essential in the success equation. About a third of participants are repeats, and MYCAT selects many of those to receive special training as trail leaders. They will go on to lead more people on more CAT Walks, thus broadening and sustaining the conservation cycle. MYCAT now has 289 CAT Walkers from 24 countries. 

A CAT Walk leader-in-training collects data for mapping tigers’ use of an important corridor to Taman Negara National Park. Having completed several CAT Walks himself, he’ll lead countless other conservation citizens on a journey to save a national wildlife treasure. Photo: Fred Koontz/WPZ.

Establishing official anti-poaching communications around the borders of Taman Negara National Park increases the legal authority with which to prosecute poachers. Photo: Suzalinur Manja Bidin/MYCAT

I hope MYCAT can expand because their work is a critical component to saving wild Malayan tigers. Accredited zoos have a key role in the success equation, too. Imagine if tiger keepers from a collective of zoos joined CAT Walks to learn first-hand how ordinary people are saving wild tigers, and then shared those compelling stories with millions of zoo visitors. In fact, conservation stories like this one will be a cornerstone of WPZ’s new Malayan tiger and sloth bear exhibit.

Artist’s rendering of Woodland Park Zoo’s future Malayan tiger exhibit. Credit: MIR

A training wall will enable guests to get closer than ever to these wondrous creatures while a new conservation action center provides them the tools to get directly involved in saving Malayan tigers. Credit: MIR

When it opens in 2015, one million Woodland Park Zoo visitors a year will connect to meaningful actions they can take, right here, right now to save wild tigers. Even now, 9,000 miles away, you can give Malayan tigers a future by supporting the CAT Walks or our new tiger exhibit and conservation partnership

Thank you for joining the CAT Walkers and me on this awesome journey. I've never felt more humbled or inspired than by walking through tiger country. Have you?


Anonymous said…
Does give a somewhat anxious environmentalist some hope....
Anonymous said…
this inspires hope....