BANGKOK - Thailand's decade-long campaign to increase tiger populations has lifted tiger numbers in a wildlife sanctuary by more than 50 percent and provided a vital contribution to conservation efforts in South East Asia, scientists said Thursday.
But researchers said consolidating the gains will require strong surveillance and patrols to keep poachers at bay.
The focus of recent efforts to boost tiger populations in Thailand has centered on the Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary in western Thailand, bordering Myanmar.
The Sanctuary supports the largest source population of wild tigers outside the Indian subcontinent, which conservationists say highlights the region’s strategic importance for range-wide tiger recovery.
But the region is the only sanctuary in all of Southeast Asia where tiger populations have been growing, according to researchers.
In an article published in the Journal of Conservation Biology in late 2015, Thai scientists from the Department of National Parks, Wildlife Conservation Society and academics reported a 50 percent increase in tiger numbers in the sanctuary to 90 distinct individuals since 2006.
Anak Pattanavibool, a co-author of the paper, said intensified patrolling was a key factor in the improved tiger survival rate. “So we have done intensive camera trapping to monitor population trends for 10 years in a row. Then we got the numbers increase by 50 percent already. So this is a hopeful sign,” he said. “Now we have the records of tigers dispersing out from this core area to restore the population in other national parks in that big [western] forest [complex],” Anak told VOA.
Anak said intensive patrolling is necessary. In the Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary there was at least one ranger per 10 square kilometers.
Elsewhere in Thailand, the ratios are weaker -- one ranger per 20 square kilometers or worse, as few as one ranger per 60 square kilometers. In India, where tiger populations have improved, the ratio is as high as one ranger per two square kilometers.
“If you add enough park rangers in the system and also you have to have some populations of tigers remaining to be able to recover them. So that’s the problem with many national parks in Thailand at the moment,” Anak said. “Even though they have numbers of park rangers… most of them have been deployed to take care of tourism. So that’s a big problem in national parks system in Thailand,” he said.
Tiger populations globally have contracted by more than 90 percent to around 3,000 to 4,000 animals in less than 200 years. Southeast Asia contains about 50 percent of the remaining tiger habitat. Total numbers in Southeast Asia range up to 1,000 animals.
Anak said overall tiger populations in Thailand have remained mostly static in the past decade at 200 to 250, despite Thailand launching a 12 year Tiger Action Plan in 2010 to boost tiger numbers.
The 2010 report noted central challenges, included sustaining current protection and monitoring systems, and expanding protection to cover the Tennasserim and Dong Phayaen-Khao Yai forest complex and regions near the Cambodian border.
Cambodia recently launched talks with Thailand, India and Malaysia on a $50 million program to reintroduce wild tigers to the Mondulkiri protected forests in Cambodia’s far east. Tiger populations in Cambodia have been poached and killed to near extinction.
Cambodian officials say under the program, the region will be protected against poachers by strong law enforcement.
But Anak said while such protection will be critical for the project to succeed, he has reservations about the outlook for the program.
“The key issue for these areas in Cambodia and for the national parks in Thailand – they need to strengthen their protection first, otherwise what you reintroduce, they will be killed. That’s why the main thing that Cambodia [has to do]; they still have big forests but no tigers anymore. That’s a key issue,” he said.
Anak added the main hope for tiger populations in South East Asia lies in cooperation between Thailand and Myanmar, covering the transboundary forest area in western Thailand where tiger populations have risen.
But he said Thailand can also support Laos and Cambodia to improve their networks of sanctuaries to develop improved protection for wildlife in forested areas – especially for tigers.