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A walk on wild’s side

Posted by: Lavaniadevi Gopalakrishnan, Malaysian Conservation Alliance for Tigers (MYCAT), a grantee of Woodland Park Zoo's Wildlife Survival Fund

Editor’s Note: Adapted from an article originally published in MYCAT Tracks: The Malaysian Tiger’s Struggle for Existence, Vol  5 2014. Woodland Park Zoo and MYCAT collaborate to enhance tiger and rain forest conservation in Peninsular Malaysia. In June 2016,  14 Association of Zoos & Aquariums tiger keepers, including WPZ’s Christine Anne, will travel to Malaysia to participate in a special CAT Walk designed for zoo professionals.

CAT Walk volunteers supplement official anti-poaching patrols. Photo: Fred Koontz/Woodland Park Zoo. 

Footsteps echo in the forest. A group of people hike in a single line along a logging road, their eyes scrutinising the trail for something. They are seen almost every weekend here, in a relatively unknown part of the Malaysian forest, occasionally even spending the night in the forest. Who are these people, and what are they looking for?

A poacher's snare hidden in a tree. Photo: Fred Koontz/Woodland Park Zoo.

They are members of the general public, MYCAT volunteers participating in its flagship programme, Citizen Action for Tigers (CAT). CAT involves citizen conservationists in the protection of an important wildlife corridor along Sungai Yu in Pahang. This stretch of forest is divided by a highway that provides ease of access for poachers into the adjacent Taman Negara. The premise behind the CAT programme is simple. Wrongdoers are unlikely to carry out their activities in a place frequented by people, especially those who are alert to the possibility of crimes in progress. Similar to a neighbourhood watch (or Rukun Tetangga for Malaysians), MYCAT has brought this idea one step further — into our forests to jointly safeguard our wildlife and heritage, complementing the patrol efforts by Taman Negara rangers inside the park.

Evidence of a poacher’s camp. Photo: Fred Koontz/Woodland Park Zoo.

With the ultimate goal of protecting and recovering the tiger population in the corridor and Taman Negara, CAT enables volunteer conservationists not only to deter poaching and encroachment by their mere presence, but also to save wildlife by deactivating snares or traps found during a guided recreational walk. Some tricky walks are guided by local Orang Asli. If volunteers encounter any suspicious activities, they call the 24-7 Wildlife Crime Hotline. MYCAT then relays the information to the authorities for action. In effect, CAT Walk provides much needed boots on the ground and eyes and ears in the forest. And most importantly, CAT Walk slowly but surely nurtures a sense of ownership and stewardship over nature amongst the volunteers, moulding them into future conservation champions. 

CAT Walkers celebrate finding a cache of snares hidden in a tree trunk. Photos: Fred Koontz/Woodland Park Zoo.

Since the programme’s inception in 2010, 550 volunteers of 24 nationalities have detected and deactivated 83 snares, while walking 584 km in the corridor! Presently, MYCAT is seeing a declining trend of threats to wildlife, suggesting poachers are slowly being rooted out from the area. Occasionally, tiger pugmarks or images of sambar on camera traps are starting to welcome volunteers. 

Data from camera traps allow park rangers to predict routes for anti-poaching patrols. Photo: Kae Kawanishi, MYCAT.

Today, CAT Walk is very popular, showing that the public is willing to take up the reins to help protect endangered wildlife. The mantle of responsibility is not only taken up by individual members of the public, but also shared by some corporations willing to donate their staff time to walk the corridor as green corporate social responsibility.

Estimated to be 130 million years old, the rain forest of Taman Negara is nearly twice as old as the Amazon rain forest. Photo: Fred Koontz/Woodland Park Zoo.

Strong support from the public fuels MYCAT’s hope of expanding the CAT programme to other important tiger habitats. Is this possible? Can an individual really make a difference in saving a species nearing extinction? The indisputable answer is yes! Find out more online with MYCAT.