Huge blow for tiger conservation after murder of two big cats in Thailand

Indochinese tigers have been declared extinct in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam in recent years, and while several breeding populations persist in Thailand’s protected area networks, they number no more than 200 individuals.

TWO TIGERS
Two tigers in the wild. Image: Davidvraju, CC BY-SA 4.0

Tiger conservationists in Thailand are reeling following the recent killing of two tigers in Thong Pha Phum National Park. Authorities have confiscated the two carcasses and are investigating the incident and its possible links to the illegal wildlife trade.

The two Indochinese tigers (Panthera tigris corbetti) were killed on 8 January by local farmers in the park in Kanchanaburi province, in the southern part of the country’s Western Forest Complex (WEFCOM), a flagship network of protected areas close to Thailand’s border with Myanmar. The farmers said that the big cats had been killing cattle, according to local media reports. However, experts said the circumstances around the seizure indicate that the farmers may have also intended to make money from the carcasses, possibly through the illegal wildlife trade.

Thailand represents the last stronghold of the Indochinese tiger, whose subspecies have been officially declared extinct in neighboring Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam over the past decade, due to poaching, habitat loss and indiscriminate snaring. Poaching is driven by mainly Chinese and Vietnamese demand for skins, bones and other body parts used in tiger-based traditional medicines and decorative curios.

The fact that there are no prior recorded reports of the tigers killing cattle in the area, as claimed by the suspects, raises further questions about the latest incident.

“Based on publicly available information, several factors raise suspicions about the motive being solely one of addressing human-tiger conflict,” Kanitha Krishnasamy, Southeast Asia director of TRAFFIC, an international wildlife trade monitoring group, told Mongabay in an emailed statement.

Rangers from Thailand’s Department of National Parks (DNP) were patrolling the area on 9 January following a tip that wildlife hunters were active along the border, according to local media reports. Attracted by a plume of smoke 3 to 4 kilometres (1.8-2.5 miles) from the Myanmar border, they disturbed five people at a campsite who quickly fled into the forest, leaving the pelts of two tigers drying and piles of meat stripped from the carcasses cooking on a grill nearby.

Four days later, the suspects turned themselves in to the police, saying the tigers had regularly killed and eaten their cattle, which prompted them to use a dead cow as bait and shoot them with borrowed guns. Subsequent necropsies revealed the tigers had been shot, one at close range, with precise headshots and with minimal damage to the pelts.

“From the killing of a protected and already imperiled species, use of illegally acquired firearms, a high amount of ammunition and weapons at the campsite, to the fact that the skin of the tiger was found drying, along with the cooked meat — all require thorough investigations,” Krishnasamy said. “Efforts must also be made to understand if the suspects reached out to authorities for help to resolve conflict with the wild tigers before deciding to take matters into their own hands.”

The suspects were initially charged with 10 violations of Thailand’s Forest Reserve Law, the National Park Act and the Wildlife Conservation and Protection Act. However, following their statement about the motives for the killing, a further charge relating to illegally having cattle in a protected area was levied.

The incident is the latest illustration of how conflict between large predators and human interests within protected areas results in the deaths of highly endangered species, Kritsana Kaewplang, Tigers Forever Thailand director for Panthera, the global wild cat conservation organisation, told Mongabay in an email.

Halting progress toward global goals

Fewer than 200 tigers are thought to remain in Thailand’s national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, where strong protection and habitat connectivity preserves several breeding populations.

Nonetheless, the Covid-19 pandemic has put enormous financial strain on the Department of National Parks and limited its ability to provide the required level of enforcement in protected areas, according to Kritsana. The parks department “could strongly benefit from increased support of other relevant government departments and stakeholders,” she said.

“Tigers are slowly recolonising the southern WEFCOM, with many individuals dispersing from Huai Kha Khaeng Thung Yai World Heritage site” to the north, Kritsana said. “Their density in this landscape is still extremely low and these individuals are not yet well connected. The reality is that the recovery of tigers in this landscape is very precarious, and the loss of two individuals signifies a huge blow to the DNP and its partners’ efforts to repopulate [the] southern WEFCOM.”

According to Kritsana, at least one of the two tigers had previously been recorded in the southern WEFCOM. A comparison of that sighting against a database of all known tigers had revealed it to be a new individual, indicating it was perhaps native to the south rather than an animal that had roamed down from the better-known populations to the north. “This, therefore, also presents a potential loss of genetic diversity for this southern population,” Kritsana said.

The killings took place a matter of days before the 4th Asia Ministerial Conference on Tiger Conservation, scheduled to be held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, from 19 to 21 January. During the conference, officials from tiger range countries will meet to coordinate their final efforts around the 2010 St. Petersburg Declaration on Tiger Conservation, in which government ministers from the 13 countries that still had wild tiger populations at the time committed to implementing measures to double wild populations by 2022, the Chinese lunar “Year of the Tiger.”

Progress toward the global goal is due to be announced and discussed at the International Tiger Conservation Forum in Vladivostok, Russia, in September. But with global estimates of wild tigers at no more than 3,900 and a doubling of the 2010 population at around 6,000, the shortfall is clear.

“All tiger range states are going to be on high alert this year,” Krishnasamy of TRAFFIC said. “Kudos to the Thai authorities on initial investigations that led to the discovery of the tiger killings. We hope that the full power of Thailand’s investigative capabilities is used to get to the bottom of the case.”

This story was published with permission from Mongabay.com.

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