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Tiger Research in Taman Negara, Malaysia
Taman Negara National Park is a critical conservation area for Malaysian tigers, yet until now, scarce ecological data existed to support its conservation. Here, researcher KAE KAWANISHI writes on the progress of her tiger research, the first long-term, intensive ecological study of tigers in Malaysia.
Written by Kae Kawanishi on 3 Aug 2003
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Peninsular Malaysia occupies the southern end of the distribution of the Indo-Chinese tiger (Panthera tigris corbetti). Although little is known of the conservation status of tigers in most Southeast Asian counties, Malaysia supports substantial populations of the subspecies. Malaysia is divided into two regions: Peninsular (West) Malaysia, covering 131,700 km2 of the Malay Peninsula, south of Thailand; and East Malaysia, occupying 198,300 km2 of northern Borneo where tigers are not found. In the past century or so, Malaysia lost about half of its forest cover. Most of the remaining forests are now found primarily in isolated mountainous regions with little agricultural values.
Since independence in 1957, large areas of productive lowland forests in Malaysia have been converted into oil palm and rubber plantations through government agricultural development schemes. In addition to this habitat loss and fragmentation, increased demands on wild meat and high-priced body parts of some wild animals brought population declines of many large mammals, including elephant (Elephas maximus), sambar deer (Cervus unicolor), seladang (Bos frontalis), tapir (Tapirus indicus), Sumatran rhinoceros (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis), and tiger (Panthera tigris). The Javan rhinoceros (Rhinoceros sondaicus) and banteng (Bos javanicus) are now believed to be extinct in Peninsular Malaysia. The human impacts on the populations of smaller endangered mammals such as various cat species, civets, and dhole are unknown. Nonetheless, most of these species are totally protected in Malaysia.
With the opening of the forests for agricultural development and the raising of livestock, the natural habitats and prey most preferred by tigers became depleted and at the same time, tigers were exposed to domesticated animals. Consequently, tigers are frequently reported to prey on livestock outside the protected area system. Protection of human life, livestock, and crops from wildlife is the responsibility of the Department of Wildlife and National Parks Peninsular Malaysia (PERHILITAN). Any animals posing threats are killed occasionally by locals, but if possible, captured and relocated by PERHILITAN. Animals are sacrificed by PERHILITAN as the last resort.
In 1976 the tiger became a totally protected species under the Protection of Wildlife Act of 1972. In the same year, PERHILITAN established Tiger Management Units in four states with large tiger populations. Primary task of TMU is to reduce the conflict between tigers and men by attending villagers' complaints and reports on livestock depredation, capturing problem tigers if necessary, and monitoring tiger movements near villages and plantations. No compensation is paid for the loss of livestock. As a result, the official persecution of tigers in most parts of Malaysia stopped, and 'problem' tigers were captured if possible and transferred to the Melaka Zoo, where PERHILITAN has maintained a breeding center for tigers since 1982. Anyone found guilty of killing a tiger is liable to a penalty of up to RM15,000 (US$4,000) and/or up to five years imprisonment. To date, no one has received the maximum penalty.
The estimated number of tigers in Malaysia declined from 3,000 in the early 1950s (Locke 1954) to 250 in the early 1980s (Khan et al. 1983). Although both these estimates were not derived from sampling-based statistics, they are nonetheless indicative of a rapid population decline. A recent official estimate of 500 tigers (Topani 1990), based on years of depredation reports and surveys done by PERHILITAN staff, suggested a population comeback. Asserting that the Topani's estimate was conservative, PERHILITAN later adjusted the number to 600-650 (Samsudin and Elagupillay 1996), which serves as the most up-to-date estimate of the nation's tiger population today.
The existing protected area system in Peninsular Malaysia relies heavily on its only national park, Taman Negara. Established in 1938 and largely due to its inaccessibility, the park has remained intact and undisturbed for the most part. It encompasses 4,343 km2, accounting for 59% of the total protected area in Peninsular Malaysia. It is not only the largest park among 13 national parks in the nation (12 other parks are in East Malaysia), but also one of the largest in Southeast Asia.
Taman Negara is part of a large contiguous tract of forest that stretches to southern Thailand. Encompassing a total of 27,469 km2, this large forest tract includes 7,135 km2 in five protected areas (Dinerstein et al. 1997), offering the best chance for long-term persistence of the tiger population in Malaysia. Under the Constitution of Malaysia, land is a state matter and the State Executive Committee of each state, not the Federal Government, is the highest decision-making body concerning land-use policy. In addition to the geographical significance, Taman Negara thus represents the only piece of land in Peninsular Malaysia that comes under direct jurisdiction of the Federal Government. Therefore, Taman Negara is a stronghold for many of the endangered species in Malaysia.
Yet even in this most critical conservation area, ecological data on many endangered species, including tiger-prey communities, are lacking. Thus, this joint project between University of Florida and PERHILITAN aims to provide the baseline ecological information on tigers and prey from Taman Negara, using sampling-based population estimation techniques. More specific objectives are: 1) to develop and refine the sampling techniques necessary to estimate the density of tigers and abundance of prey species, 2) to estimate population size of the tiger and prey biomass, 3) to investigate the tiger ecology in relation to the habitat integrity, and 4) to improve the local capacity in application of sampling techniques so that the monitoring of the tiger population in the country can be continued.
The conservation of the wild landscape that supports top predators and their prey species has become a global concern. With almost half of the land still forested, a tiger conservation effort based on sound knowledge of its ecology is not too late in Malaysia. In developing countries, government organizations, especially those concerned with natural resources, are often understaffed and chronically lacking in funds for research, and sometimes expertise. PERHILITAN recognizes that the attainable goal requires international cooperation.
This is the first intensive ecological study on tigers in Malaysia and the first long-term research conducted by any foreign institution in Taman Negara. From the onset of the project, the project has received tremendous support from the Director General and former Director General of PERHILITAN, and all aspects of the fieldwork are supported and assisted by various PERHILITAN personnel. At the beginning of the project in 1998, an officer and a senior ranger were assigned to the project as a project counterpart and permanent field assistant, respectively. The field team, headed by Kawanishi (a PhD candidate at UF), consists of 8-10 persons, including PERHILITAN rangers, local research assistants, aborigines, and occasionally villagers. We exchange field notes with PERHILITAN's Rhino Protection Unit, which survey for rhino tracks in large areas of Taman Negara. We are also working closely with the Research Division to standardize the data management system for all camera-trapping studies in Malaysia. The Management Information System Division (MIS) provided the project with past records of tiger tracks in Taman Negara and a base map for Geographic Information System (GIS). All the spatial information collected in this study will eventually be added to PERHILITAN database. In cooperation with MIS, we will be building a wildlife database for Taman Negara using GIS, which will serve as a prototype for the rest of the protected area system in Malaysia.
Tiger experts anticipate that this project will generate one of the most reliable estimates of the tiger density from primary rainforests. By filling a major gap in our current understanding of tiger ecology, the result will have major implications for global tiger conservation. With this ambitious goal, the project has received generous financial support from the Save the Tiger Fund (54%), a special project of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation created in partnership with ExxonMobil Corporation, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF)-Japan (18%), WWF-UK (8%), the Disney Wildlife Conservation Fund (8%), University of Florida (8%), WWF-Netherlands (4%), and personal donations (<1%). Other partners for the conservation efforts of the Malaysian tigers include the New York based Wildlife Conservation Society and WWF-Malaysia, both of which are conducting tiger-related research programs in other parts of Malaysia. Within the next few years, outputs of all the collaborative research will be put together, and the results will enable us to understand the conservation needs for the species, and to devise an ecosystem- and landscape-scale conservation strategy for tigers in Malaysia.
Chances of observing tigers in a densely vegetated rainforest are extremely rare. The project thus uses both active and passive infrared camera-trapping systems, electrically triggered by animals passing in front of the camera, to capture the image of tigers. Then, based on the photographs, individual tigers are identified based on their unique stripe patterns. The capture history data will be analyzed using program CAPTURE software (Otis et al. 1978, White et al. 1982, Rexstad and Burnham 1991). Application of this population model to estimate a tiger population using photographic data has been refined by Karanth and Nichols (1998) and successfully applied to tiger populations in India. In order to estimate the population size of tigers in this large relatively undisturbed primary rainforest, we needed to sample multiple sites. Then, to photographically capture and recapture multiple individuals, the size of each sampling area must be large enough to encompass the home ranges of several tigers. Based on available information and financial as well as logistical resources, three sites of 200 km2 each were selected as study sites in Taman Negara.
Up to 45 camera traps are placed at strategic points to maximize the opportunities to capture tigers. The site selection is based on preliminary surveys and information gathered from aborigines and PERHILITAN staff. Cameras are attended every month and left in the same location throughout the trapping period unless trapping performance is absolutely poor at specific localities. Most of the field time is spent maintaining these camera traps in the road-less study areas. On average a team can attend 1.5 cameras/day.
In addition to the camera trapping, scats of tigers and leopards are being collected for a dietary analysis, line-transect and track-count sampling are being conducted to estimate the abundance of prey species, and signs of human/natural disturbance in the park are being systematically compiled to assess the habitat integrity for tigers and prey. All the above information will be incorporated into a spatial model of the predator-prey communities using GIS.
Overall project period, January 1998 - August 2002, is divided into the three main phases as follows:
Phase I (January - November 1998): Preparation
Phase II (November 1998 - July 2001): Data collection
1. April 1999 - May 2000: First sampling site
2. March 2000 - January 2001: Second sampling site
3. November 2000 - July 2001: Third sampling site
Phase III (August 2001 - August 2002): Data analysis and dissemination
We are in the middle of sampling at the last site. So far we have collected about 3,000 wildlife photographs of 45 vertebrate species during some 9,000 trap nights (1 camera set out for one 24-hr period = 1 trap night). Photographs of tigers constitute 1% of the total wildlife photographs. Besides tigers, the photographs provide incontestable evidence of the existence of rare species in Taman Negara such as dhole (Cuon alpinus) and storm's stork (Ciconia stormii). The only medium to large mammal known to occur in Taman Negara that has not been captured on film is the Sumatran rhinoceros. We have track records of this extremely endangered species from several locations in the study sites, but so far the animals have eluded the cameras. In addition, a total of 72 scat samples of Panthera species await a dietary analysis. We are currently soliciting additional funding for a molecular analysis of these scats.
With the financial support from international funding agencies, it has been the cooperation between American institutions and the Malaysian government that made this difficult project possible. We would also like to thank those on the ground, who spend most of their time moving from one trap site to another, carrying heavy equipment, camping gear, rice, sugar, and cans of sardines on their backs. They have kept going, despite the rigors of trying to move about in the undulating terrain, crossing flooded rivers, living in always-wet clothes and shoes, under the constant attack of ground leeches, all to ensure that cameras are functioning properly in the humid environment. Because of their dedication, interest, diligence, and sense of humor, the project has survived many difficult situations. Thanks are due to Malek Sahak, AhMad Zaharudin, Kamarizuan Kamarudzzaman, Song Horng Neo-Liang, Abraham Mathew, Abu Zahrim Ismail, and Hairul Azhar B. Harun. Only humanity will save the tigers.
Dinerstein, E., E. Wikramanayake, J. Robinson, U,. Karanth, A. Rabinowitz, D. Olson, T. Mathew, P. Hedao, M. Connor, G. Hemley, and D. Bolze. 1997. A framework for identifying high priority areas and actions for the conservation of tigers in the wild. World Wildlife Fund-US, Washington, D. C.
Karanth, K. U. and J. D. Nichols. 1998. Estimation of tiger densities in India using photographic captures and recaptures. Ecology 79(8):2852-2862.
Khan, M. K. M., S. T. Elagupillay, and Z. Zainal. 1983. Species conservation priorities in the tropical rain forests of Peninsular Malaysia. Malayan Naturalist 36:2-8.
Locke, A. 1954. The tigers of Trengganu. Museum Press Ltd., London.
Otis, D. L., K. P. Burnham, G. C. White, and D. R. Anderson. 1978. Statistical inference from capture data on closed animal populations. Wildl. Monogr. 62:1-35.
Rexstad, E., and K. P. Burnham. 1991. Use's guide for interactive program CAPTURE abundance estimation of closed animal populations. Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colorado.
Samsudin, A. R., and S. Elagupillay. 1996. A review of the protection of the tiger in Peninsular Malaysia. Proceedings of the second international conference and GIS workshop to assess the status of tigers, 24-31 January 1996, Thailand.
Topani, R. 1990. Status and distribution of tiger in Peninsular Malaysia. J. Wildl. Parks (Malaysia) 9:71-102.
White, G. C., D. R. Anderson, K. P. Burnham, and D. L. Otis. 1982. Capture-recapture removal methods for sampling closed population. Los Almos National Laboratory Publication LA-8787-NERP. Los Alamos. New Mexico.
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Dr. Kae is a professional wildlife biologist with a strong emphasis on carnivores, and is currently an independent technical advisor to the Division of Research and Conservation in the Department of Wildlife and National Parks. She hopes to contribute to the wildlife conservation in Malaysia based o... more inside »
Kae Kawanishi also contributed 2 other articles in this section: