Tiger conservation gains threatened by proposed dam

The controversial Mae Wong dam in western Thailand represents a significant new threat to the country’s wild tiger population, and jeopardises the continued success of conservation efforts in Mae Wong National Park, warns WWF.

As opposition to the dam project builds, the Thai Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP) and WWF today released rare video footage of a tigress and her two cubs in Mae Wong National Park, close to the proposed dam construction site.

The 20-second footage, retrieved from camera traps in May, offers hope for the survival of the species and evidence of the success of joint efforts by the Thai government, public sector and communities to manage and restore Thailand’s western forest complex, a crucial tiger habitat.

“As tigers need large amounts of food, especially when they are nursing their young, the new footage indicates that prey in the Mae Wong-Klong Lan forests is abundant enough to support tiger reproduction and recovery,” said Rungnapa Phoonjampa, Manager of WWF-Thailand’s Mae Wong- Klong Lan National Parks Tiger Recovery Programme. “The camera traps captured many tiger prey species including gaur, barking deer, wild pig and deer, as well as other mammals, including tapir, serow, Fea’s muntjac and elephant. In all over 30 mammal species were captured on film.”

Numbers of the Indochinese tiger, found in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam, are in steep decline due to shrinking habitat, the illicit trade in tiger parts for traditional medicines, and depletion of tiger prey species. Fewer than 300 wild tigers are estimated to remain in Thailand.

Camera traps are part of collective efforts by the DNP and WWF-Thailand to track the tiger population in this part of the Western Forest Complex, which includes 17 protected areas covering over 19,000 km². Camera trapping in Mae Wong has so far recorded the presence of 9 tigers and 2 cubs, much higher than initially expected by WWF researchers. One of these tigers was previously caught on camera in the Huay Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary in July 2011, located 40 kilometres from Mae Wong, revealing the movement of tigers from Huay Kha Khaeng into Mae Wong.

The conservation efforts in Mae Wong and Klong Lan national parks build on commitments made at the 2010 Tiger Summit in St Petersburg, Russia. During this high-level Summit, the Thai government along with the 12 other tiger range states committed to doubling the numbers of wild tigers by 2022. They also presented the Global Tiger Recovery Programme, which aims to conserve and recover tiger populations and their prey and clamp down on poaching.

“The recent camera trap footage, along with the encouraging data we have on tiger prey species, shows the conservation work of the DNP and WWF-Thailand is on the right track,” added Rungnapa. “The Mae Wong and Klong Lan forests are not only critical tiger habitat, they are also home to other threatened species. By protecting the tigers, we really can protect so much more.”

However, the new THB 13 billion (US$400 million) dam project proposed for the Mae Wong river threatens the survival of Thailand’s tigers and conservation work in Mae Wong national park, as well as the adjacent UNESCO World Heritage Site of Huay Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary.

The dam will destroy over 20km² of the national park, submerging an area where sambar deer, an important prey species for tigers, are found and had through successful conservation efforts recovered to a healthy population. New access roads would also risk increasing poaching pressure.

WWF and other NGOs opposing the dam project have asked the government to consider alternative measures to mitigate flood and drought problems. These measures include better water management, improved irrigation, and building smaller dams outside protected areas.

“Years of successful conservation efforts will be washed away if the dam construction goes ahead, “added Rungnapa. “The Mae Wong dam must be stopped or we risk losing our tigers and so much more that Thailand loves and reveres.”

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