It’s often cited that Malayan tigers numbered 3,000 in the 1950s. Could that be possible? Biologist Quek Yew Aun examines the evidence for this number.
The Malayan tiger (Panthera tigris jacksoni) is a definitive part of our Malaysian identity. Its presence adorns key icons synonymous to Malaysia, including the national coat of arms and the masthead of a prominent local bank. Even our national football team is nicknamed ‘Harimau Malaya’.
Sadly, the species itself is critically endangered according to the IUCN Red List.
How close a species is to extinction is indicated by the number of individuals remaining in the wild. And wild Malayan tigers have been declining in the past few decades due to factors such as poaching and habitat loss.
However, determining the exact number of Malayan tigers in the wild has always been a challenge.
(Photo: A Malayan tiger in Zoo Negara, 2012. Wild tigers in Malaysia inch closer to extinction but recent concerted conservation efforts bring hope. – Pic by YH Law.)
A tough survey
This is because tigers are only found in areas of dense forests and challenging terrain for humans to negotiate. Found only in Peninsular Malaysia, tiger habitat is split across three main forest complexes – the Main Range, Taman Negara and Endau-Rompin.
To solve the numbers conundrum, Malaysia initiated the 1st National Tiger Survey (NTS), conducted from 2016–2020, to definitively count our tigers in the wild.
While the results of NTS have yet to be released, the Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources’ recent reply to Parliament has indicated that wild tigers number fewer than 200 individuals.
[Editor’s note: the Department of Wildlife and National Parks Malaysia will present the survey in a webinar on the evening of 30 July.]
200 left from 3,000?
This is worrying, and especially tragic when one contrasts this to the 3,000 tigers we claim to have had in the 1950s. It would mean that Malaysia has lost 96% of Malayan tigers — the national icon – since independence.
But what if I told you that the figure of ‘3,000 tigers’ is a flawed estimate — one we should use with caution?
In fact, this number is a mere guesstimate based on the observations and subsequent extrapolation of one person: Colonel Arthur Locke.
Locke was a British District Officer posted to Kemaman in Terengganu between 1949–1951. He was involved in various aspects of district management, which at the time included handling the problem of livestock attacked by wild animals.
This experience led him to publish the book, The Tigers of Trengganu, in 1954.
In the book he painted the tiger as a creature that should be respected. However, once a tiger turned into a “man-killer”, Locke and the locals would hunt and kill the tiger. From such experiences, he also estimated that there were 32 wild tigers in the Kemaman district.
He then used this number to estimate the number of tigers for the whole of Terengganu and Malaysia. His method was simple: extrapolate the numbers in Kemaman to the whole land according to area in square miles.
To Locke’s credit, he emphasised that his numbers were “mere guesswork” and were in no way “dependable”.
Makes no sense
To a biologist, Locke’s method to infer tiger numbers for then Malaya is laughable. One cannot just extrapolate tiger numbers using tiger density from one small area. There are many areas across the land that are not suitable tiger habitat: urban, agriculture and swamps.
To put things into perspective, the subcontinent of India has 3,000 Bengal tigers (Panthera tigris tigris) today. But India is also 25 times larger than Peninsular Malaysia. Hence, the baseline number of 3,000 tigers here does not make sense.
3,000 is an inflated number
I agree that we need the narrative of urgency to conserve the Malayan tiger which is in such dire circumstances. However, propagating a number that is based on erroneous guesstimates would only undermine the science-based approach of conservation.
In summary, if we must refer to the baseline number of 3,000 tigers espoused by Locke, we should explain that the number was likely inflated. The author himself said so.
The fact that we have fewer than 200 wild Malayan tigers in our forests should shock us into action on its own.
What Malaysians should do is to recognise that Malayan tigers are critically endangered now – regardless of how many there used to be – and continue supporting Malayan tiger conservation.
Because without them, we lose part of ourselves.
In short, loving our Malayan tigers 3000, always.
Happy International Tiger Day 2021.
[Edited by YH Law]
Quek Yew Aun works in conservation policy. He believes in the power of naps and writes in his free time.
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