Mainland Southeast Asia has a tiger problem. Numbers are going in completely the opposite direction that officials and animal lovers want – plunging in the wild and soaring in captivity.

Rampant mass tourism and use of tiger bone and parts in products boasting Chinese medicinal “benefits” has put a high price on these iconic animals. Never has this magnificent animal been so threatened and exploited.

A panel of experts outlined the status of tigers at a forum in Bangkok this week, detailing a disturbing outlook in Thailand and neighboring countries.

“There are no tigers in northern Laos anymore. And only perhaps two or three left in northern Myanmar,” said Tim Redford, a program director and wildlife veteran with Freeland Foundation. “The landscape has been changing very rapidly. In Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam there are either no tigers or viable breeding populations.

“And in Thailand, there are no conclusive recent census results, but we know that until recently tigers used to be in about 20 forest complexes. However, they can only be found now in perhaps three. It is very bleak now.”

In Indonesia two subspecies had gone extinct, he said. But there was some good news. In India, the number of tigers in the wild has risen to about 2,226 with a new census about to confirm exact figures, thanks to strong government policies such as proper funding of national parks and good work by forest and conservation groups. But even so, 51 Bengal tigers were poached in the first five months of this year.

A slide at the panel discussion shows images of tiger abuse in Thailand. Photo: Annelie Langerak.

Roads threaten forests

But a range of factors such as social media and big infrastructure projects like China’s Belt and Road Initiative were threatening to divide some of the region’s last forest complexes into small fragments “and that hastens their demise,” Redford said. “So where we have tigers, they may not be there in a few years time.”

“Poachers are traveling from Vietnam to Sumatra and Malaysia to hunt tigers. And in Laos and Thailand we see the poachers writing on trees, marking out their territory,” he said, showing a slide of a man carrying an AK47.

Redford was deliberately vague about parks or locations in Thailand where tigers could be found, warning that “social media is guiding poachers into areas where they are.”

Thailand’s Department of National Parks was doing a very good job, he said, training rangers and boosting their capacity by bolstering their forensic skills, as shown in the notorious ‘Black panther case,’ involving a wealthy industrialist caught and charged with hunting in a wildlife sanctuary in Kanchanaburi in February 2018.

But Laos and Myanmar were “lagging behind,” he said. And others noted that officials in Laos often failed to collaborate effectively with their counterparts in adjacent countries.

Panelists discuss the plight of tigers at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Bangkok on June 19, 2019. From left: Edwin Wiek, Somsak Soonthornnawaphat, Tim Redford and Chris Perkins. Pic: Annelie Langerak

New Thai law

Edwin Wiek, founder and director of the Wildlife Friends Foundation of Thailand, said the best news was that the Thai government recently upgraded the 27-year-old Wildlife Preservation Act and the new law would come into force in a few months. The new law had tougher penalties and the option for civil cases – fines of up to 2 million baht (US$64,800) for loss of biodiversity, and up to 10 years jail for people convicted of serious wildlife crimes.

But he said: “Tourism is becoming a massive problem.” There were more than 44 places with tigers and they were often kept in small cages. He showed a short video of a tourist poking a tiger with a stick at one attraction.

Thailand featured prominently in a report by National Geographic this month on the “dark side of wildlife tourism,” with pictures of distressed animals at a notorious crocodile farm and zoo near Bangkok, which caters to busloads of Chinese tourists, plus other sites which activists say should be improved so tigers, elephants and other animals enjoy less onerous conditions.

Wiek said that in 2007, CITES, the world body overseeing the trade in wildlife and flora, called for an end to the captive breeding of tigers. However, it was a non-binding resolution that some Asian countries opposed and the number of tigers in captivity had soared since then, from about 600 to close to 2,000 in 69 facilities across Thailand, including many new ‘farms’ in the far northeast near Laos.

There was also a special economic zone in northern Laos backed by Chinese investors and politicians, plus facilities on either side of the Mekong that appeared to have many hundreds of tigers. Some of these facilities had zoo permits but conservationists regarded them more as ‘safe-houses’ for illegal wildlife trading.

These sites were suspected to be linked to a huge trade in lion and tiger bones, which he said was marketed as traditional medicine with health benefits and sold to Vietnamese and Chinese tourists for considerable sums.

Wiek said there was concern that tiger farms were having an impact on tigers in the wild as the trade in parts had increased the animals’ value, particularly for male tigers and cubs.

A tiger yawns while a piglet stands beside it at Sriracha Tiger Zoo, in Chonburi province, Thailand, in June 2016. Photo: Reuters/Chaiwat Subprasom/File photo

‘Selfies’ with tigers

Somsak Soonthornnawaphat, the head in Thailand of World Animal Protection, said his group wanted a ban on tourists riding elephants, people taking “selfies” with tigers and dolphin shows.

He voiced concern about the millions of tourists coming from China and East Asia and the fact “animal attractions are in high demand.” Thailand had at least 180 elephant venues, he said, plus several dozen parks where “over 600 tigers suffer from tourist activities.”

His group believed that animals should be free from hunger and thirst; pain, injury and disease; discomfort (no chains around elephants’ ankles); able to express normal behavior (not separated from their mother); and free from fear and distress.

“Life is totally different when tigers are living in captivity,” he said, noting that most of the tigers in captivity in Thailand were actually Bengal tigers from South Asia or hybrid animals bred for profit, not conservation.

Thailand has dozens of facilities where tourists can be in a picture with tigers. Image: Annelie Langerak

Chris Perkin, the regional manager for Thailand and central Asia for the UK Border Force, said the British government took wildlife crimes – such as black market trade in rhino horn, pangolins and ivory – very seriously, because it was a major facet of organized crime, worth more than $21 billion a year globally.

“People forget that at least 150 rangers are killed every year – that’s three a week – by poachers in parks and sanctuaries around the world,” he said. Authorities used high-profile figures such as Prince Charles and tennis star Andy Murray to promote their work countering wildlife trading at key sites such as Heathrow Airport.

Thai wildlife officials load a tiger into a cage on a truck after they removed it from an enclosure after the tiger was anaesthetised at the Wat Pha Luang Ta Bua Tiger Temple in Kanchanaburi province, western Thailand on May 30, 2016.Thai wildlife officials armed with a court order on May 30 resumed the treacherous process of moving tigers from a controversial temple which draws tourists as a petting zoo, but stands accused of selling off the big cats for slaughter. / AFP PHOTO / CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT
Thai wildlife officials load a tiger on a truck after they took it from an enclosure at the Tiger Temple west of Bangkok in May 2016. The center was accused of selling off big cats for slaughter. Photo: AFP / Christophe Archambault

Wiek, who was an adviser on a committee that helped the Prayut government update the wildlife law, said Thailand may do better to have a specific police unit, plus specialist prosecutors and an environmental court to handle wildlife crimes because results in many high-profile cases had been hugely disappointing.

Cases such as dozens of orangutans found smuggled from Borneo at a key tourist facility in Bangkok, plus the Tiger Temple in Kanchanaburi, had attracted huge media attention but neither site ended up losing its permit to operate.

But he said it was very difficult to change the status quo when thousands of people are employed in jobs linked to animal parks set up for tourists.

Perkin said it was important for officials in Thailand and other countries to recognize that failing to treat animals well would hurt their reputation around the world.

Other panelists agreed, saying venues need to be more animal-friendly and run by people with ethical values.

Watch the discussion: Plight of the Tiger: (Note: The author is a volunteer who helped the FCCT stage this event).