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Counting tigers on the frontlines of conservation

Posted by: Fred Koontz, PhD, VP Field Conservation

Nowhere can we make a greater difference for endangered tigers than to work directly in the field. Just one hundred years ago, more than 100,000 wild tigers roamed the grasslands and forests of Asia. Now, less than 3,200 survive. Behind this sharp decline are decades of habitat loss and illegal killing. Today, conservation scientists worry about an accelerating international demand for tiger parts, such as skin for rugs and bone for Chinese medicine. Poachers are pushing this iconic big cat to the brink of extinction. We’re working hard to change that!

As you learned in last summer’s field report, Panthera and Woodland Park Zoo established a 10-year, $1 million partnership to assist our Malaysian colleagues’ efforts to save tigers from extinction. The Malayan tiger (Panthera tigris jacksoni) is a tiger subspecies found only on the Malay Peninsula. In the 1950s, there were an estimated 3,000 tigers in Peninsular Malaysia; possibly fewer than 350 survive today. We work in concert with many Malaysian colleagues, including staff within the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (DWNP), Terengganu Forestry Department, Terengganu State Government, Universiti Malaysia Terengganu and the Malaysian Conservation Alliance for Tigers (MYCAT).

Our partners leading the in-country field work are the nonprofits Rimba (“Jungle” in Malay) and Pemantau-Hijau (“Green Monitor” in Malay). Currently our support focuses on Rimba’s Project Harimau Selamanya (“Tigers Forever” in Malay), which monitors and protects tigers and other large carnivores in a lush landscape encompassing the northeastern part of Taman Negara National Park and the selectively logged forests of the Kenyir Wildlife Corridor, located in the center of the peninsula.

Tigers are highly endangered. More tigers exist in zoos than in the wild, where rising poaching pressures and loss of habitat have reduced them to inhabiting just seven percent of their original range. Photo by Steve Winter/Panthera.

In July, I was privileged to work with this team, to assist them in installing and analyzing data from an extensive camera-trap grid and supporting local law enforcement efforts to reduce poaching pressures on tigers and other wildlife. The camera-trap study will provide essential information on the number and locations of tigers (and many other species) at our project site, which will serve as a baseline to monitor conservation progress in future months and years.

Lake Kenyir is a human-made water body for hydroelectric power. When dispersing into new territories, tigers can swim to and among the lake’s nearly 340 islands. Photo courtesy RIMBA.

Yes, this work does take a village

I found it invaluable to work alongside a solid, innovative network of professionals and see progress unfold first hand. Dr. Joe Smith, Panthera’s Tiger Program Director, and I had assembled the site team in 2013 by partnering with Dr. Reuben Clements (co-founder of Rimba), who oversees the entire project, especially research and government liaison, while Pemantau-Hijau leads a collaborative, protection effort with local law enforcement agencies to reduce poaching.

WPZ Conservation Associate Dr. Reuben Clements observes scratch marks probably made by a sun bear. Photo by Fred Koontz/Woodland Park Zoo.

All in all, we have an outstanding ground team that is strengthened by collaboration from DWNP’s biologists, Taman Negara park rangers, Terengganu State officials, indigenous communities, and others. Since 2012, we have supported four training workshops with the help of experts from Panthera, MYCAT, and the Wildlife Conservation Society. More than 60 park rangers and managers have completed training in improved tiger survey methods, anti-poaching patrol strategies, and effective law enforcement techniques.

Many local and Orang Asli field staff help the field team bolster their effectiveness. Photo by Rueben Clements/RIMBA.

Counting tigers to save them 

To get a handle on the site’s tiger population, the team is conducting a “camera trapping” project. Lam Wai Yee, from Rimba, manages this effort and is joined by Laurie Hedges (Head of Monitoring), Jasdev Sohanpal (Crew Leader), and staff from DWNP. This summer, they installed 95 camera trap stations across a 147,000 acre (600 km2) grid. At each one, two automatic cameras secured opposite each other detect and capture the motion and body heat of tigers passing by, day or night. After 60 days, researchers downloaded and analyzed photographs of tigers’ individual stripe patterns to estimate the grid’s population and to determine “tiger hotspots.” Other animals get photographed, too, including animals that tigers prey upon and animals that prey upon tigers: poachers.

Reuben, Laurie, Jasdev and Wai Yee assemble a camera trap. Reuben and Laurie pretend to be tigers to verify proper alignment. Photo by Fred Koontz/Woodland Park Zoo.

Patrolling tiger highways

High ridge-tops and river beds are the natural highways tigers use to hunt and travel. Our team hiked along them to inspect the grid’s cameras and download data. I marveled at the ancient forest’s sheer abundance of plant and animal diversity: tapirs, sun bears, elephants, leopards, gibbons, macaques, and countless birds and insects. Signs, or tracks, of wild pigs and sambar deer  indicate that tigers can still find a pretty good meal here. Above all, my highlight was finding a set of tiger tracks!

Densely covered forest floors make finding tiger signs like this paw print difficult. Other signs of tigers researchers look for are scat, claw scrapes, and spray. Photo by Fred Koontz/Woodland Park Zoo.

“Trails” in the dense forest are better suited to tigers than to humans. Photo by Fred Koontz/Woodland Park Zoo.

As beautiful as our hikes were, tiger conservation is no walk in the park. Conditions are among the most difficult I’ve ever seen. Walking through a forest with tigers in it is humbling enough, but venomous snakes and mosquitoes carrying deadly dengue fever, steep slopes, lack of trails, and potentially dangerous elephants and sun bears add to the challenge. This experience made me appreciate even more our tiger team’s resilience, sustained by their deep knowledge of conservation and innovation-driven spirit.

Project Manager Wai Yee oversees the team’s on-the-ground organizational logistics and SMART software data reporting. Photo by Fred Koontz/Woodland Park Zoo.

Getting smarter

Helping us to get more out of this work is new conservation software known as Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool (SMART). Developed collaboratively by zoos and conservation agencies as an open-source tool to reduce poaching pressure, it is integrated with our mobile data-gathering devices, field cell phones, and GPS units. SMART allows us to work, well, smarter.

SMART software allows field teams to adapt strategies and tactics quickly to changing conditions in the tiger ecosystem. Source:

Reliably tracking massive amounts of quantitative data and rapidly sharing feedback among managers, field staff, and anti-poaching law enforcement means improved efficiency and effectiveness. This, in turn, boosts staff morale and motivation. Given the physical challenges of field conservation I just described, it is a welcome cycle of benefits.

Tiger conservation tools are continually evolving and every asset counts when it comes to staying a step ahead of poachers. Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) camera traps can send pictures of poachers to cellphones and to unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) flying over forests to look out for suspicious activities. Even so, no tool substitutes for the local, human knowledge, physical skill and inner drive required to save these big cats. This work isn’t for everyone. When I think of heroes, I think of our ground team.

From the length and burn rate of firewood logs, rangers and researchers can estimate a poaching group’s size and how long it might remain in the forest. Photo by Fred Koontz/Woodland Park Zoo.

Malayan tiger camera-trapped in our study site! Panthera has generously contributed 200 cameras to the project, a value of nearly $100,000. Photo courtesy RIMBA.

Baby elephant camera-trapped in our research site. Saving tigers and their forest home also protects countless other species of wildlife.  Photo courtesy RIMBA.

Why we have hope

First, our research and protection area in and around Taman Negara is one of the best tiger habitats in Malaysia. We are still analyzing the results of our camera study, but we’ve succeeded in confirming the presence of tigers and learned that they enjoy a wide distribution.

This means it is not too late to save this iconic big cat. Although the total number of tigers remaining in Malaysia is fewer than officials estimated in 2008, when they crafted the national conservation plan, the population can rebound. Malayan tigers are prolific breeders. When she can stay out of the hands of poachers, a female may average 14 births in her lifetime. The heart of our job is protecting Malayan tigers, and their prey, giving them time to breed well into the future.

A healthy-looking and growing Malayan tiger cub, camera-trapped in our study area, inspires hope for the species’ future and for our work! Photo courtesy RIMBA.

I also have hope because of Panthera’s Tigers Forever Program, which has brought together the best researchers and conservation leaders in the world, including Reuben and his team. During my trip, we attended a Tigers Forever conference in Jakarta and shared what we’ve learned with leaders from other tiger-range countries in Asia.

While the shrinking numbers of tigers is bad news, we must stand up and speak about the good news—what’s working, why it matters, and how we can help—even more loudly. Seeing first-hand the passion of people committed to save tigers filled me with optimism for the cat’s future.

We have excellent leaders on the ground. Now, we need a groundswell of everyday citizens worldwide to show their stripes of support and encourage these heroes. Together we can make a difference!

Our Malayan Tiger project is one of 14 Tigers Forever sites across Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, India, Bangladesh and Nepal. Brochure photo by Steve Winter/Panthera.


Anonymous said…
How can keepers at Woodland Park Zoo get involved in these field research programs? Active participation with programs that directly influence the species that they are caring for will equip keepers with an enhanced knowledge of the animals they care for while providing a deeper understanding that will augment conservation messages to the public.
Fred Koontz said…
I just noticed this question - which is a good one! First, please know that our keepers at Woodland Park Zoo are directly connected to our field conservation efforts by: 1) caring for our zoo animals, who serve as ambassadors of their wild counterparts and part of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums' Species Survival Plan; and 2) informing our guests about efforts to conserve endangered animals in nature. For example, this especially will be the case for critically endangered Malayan tigers when Woodland Park Zoo's new Banyan Wilds opens on May 2. The more time I spend in Asia learning about the challenges facing tigers in the wild, the more I realize that increasing public will to save tigers is THE key. Thus the role of the keepers, educators and communication experts at the zoo is increasingly important. I cannot emphasize this enough! Keepers and other zoo staff, volunteers and zoo members can all help save tigers by staying informed of our field project partnership with Panthera through our website, social media and magazine -- and spreading the word that tigers need immediate protection. If you have other ideas or questions please contact me directly. Thanks! Fred Koontz, VP of Field Conservation, Woodland Park Zoo.