This article appeared in the September 2016 edition of Expat Living and is written by Katie Rogers. A version of this article appears here.

After dramatic scenes emerged of officers raiding Thailand’s infamous Tiger Temple earlier this year, the deplorable living conditions of its captive bred tigers drew widespread condemnation, along with the whole questionable practice of tiger farming. The incident also called attention to the dramatic drop in global wild tiger numbers over the past 100 years, and in particular the spectacular collapse of populations in Southeast Asia – largely driven by consumer demand for traditional medicine derived from tiger parts.

© CK Wong / WWF-Greater Mekong

Based in Singapore, Mike Baltzer is leader of the WWF’s Tigers Alive Initiative. He moved here from Kuala Lumpur last year and, together with his regional team and global network, coordinates the WWF’s efforts on the ground – and also at a policy level with government.

Concerted efforts to halt the decline of wild tiger numbers commenced in earnest in the 1960s, but Mike says poaching, habitat loss and the growth of Asia’s human population saw numbers continue to fall. The catalyst for change came in 2008 when the World Bank (then CEO Robert Zoellick was a tiger fan) launched the Global Tiger Initiative, and then, in collaboration with Russian President Vladimir Putin (also a tiger fan), held a summit in 2010. The result was that governments and conservation organisations agreed to rethink tiger conservation, to meet annually, and to commit to an ambitious global goal to double the wild tiger population by 2022 (known as the TX2 Goal). In working towards the same goal, the WWF has radically transformed its approach to increasing tiger numbers.

This year marks the halfway point of the 12-year project. Mike says the global count is close to 3,900, up from the estimate of 3,200 in 2009. “This possible increase of 700 is an indication that the curve, which had been steadily careering downwards, is perhaps starting to go up. It can largely be attributed to tiger population increases in Bhutan, India, Russia and Nepal, as well as improvements in survey techniques. So while it doesn’t sound like a big increase, if it is a true reflection of a positive change, then it’s dramatic. Having said that, while things may be getting better in some places, the threats are still pretty intense wherever tigers survive.”

Nepal is an example of best practice in action. “There is a special Prime Ministerial committee on tigers there, and they take poaching very seriously; the army is involved in protecting the National Parks and they have community-based management and effective human conflict programmes,” says Mike.

It’s obvious, then, that a positive outlook for tigers hinges on governments showing strong initiative. “We’re not seeing the changes in numbers in some places such as Indonesia and Malaysia where we see less commitment,” says Mike. Sumatra is the last bastion of tigers in Indonesia, but, as in other areas of Southeast Asia, the growing economy is fuelling road construction, infrastructure development, urbanisation and agricultural expansion. This competition for land is reducing forests and tiger habitats. “We’ve captured images of a tiger looking into one of our camera traps and the following day a bulldozer going through the area,” says Mike. “The same tiger returns to the camera a few days later, but there’s no forest. The change is very, very rapid in Sumatra.”

Poaching is the number one threat to tigers and Mike says a tiger isn’t completely safe anywhere. Illegal hunting and selling is driven by consumer demand, largely from China, but also Laos, Vietnam and Malaysia. Commercial trade in wild caught tigers and breeding is illegal according to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

Despite this, every part of a tiger is in demand: skin for display, and bones, meat and claws for traditional medicine and luxury goods as status symbols. Tiger wine made from bones and sold as a health tonic is a non-traditional product that has fuelled increased demand in the past few decades.

One of 16 tigers cubs seized from smugglers
One of 16 tigers cubs seized from smugglers © WWF / James Morgan

Tiger farms complicate the issue. Many operate as tourist attractions, as in the case of the aforementioned Tiger Temple outside Bangkok, but are generally perceived as a front for illegal breeding, smuggling and the sale of parts. There are international calls for the closure of similar operations in Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and particularly China.

What conditions, then, are needed for tiger numbers to bounce back? Mike says that three factors are most important for breeding: space, available prey and zero poaching; this has been shown in both India and Russia. “The big problem is that once numbers start improving, it can become an issue for people living in those areas. So we work intensely on resolving the conflict between local people and tigers. In places like India and Nepal, where they have a high tolerance level for tigers, they have lived in harmony with them for a long time; it’s considered a part of life and the animals are revered.”

While it’s unlikely tigers will ever appear in Singapore again, British-born Mike still gets excited when discussing wildlife sighting opportunities in Singapore. Having worked and lived in Malaysia, Laos and Vietnam, he is genuinely amazed to sight hornbills and cockatoos from his office window on Alexandra Road – not to mention a wild boar outside his condo. He has also started looking for otters in Bishan Park, and he sends photos of any snake sightings to colleagues. “I’ve seen things in Singapore that I could only dream of seeing in a regular city environment,” says Mike, who lives here with his wife and daughter.

Tropical conservation was Mike’s chief interest as a child, stemming from time spent in the Surrey countryside with his grandfather and the strong influence of a science teacher who had grown up in Malaysia and Singapore and instilled in him a fascination for the ecology and history of this region. “I was the kid with tiger posters on my walls,” he says with a smile. Mike’s specialty in large-scale, high-intensity conservation drew him to the WWF Tiger Initiative. “In previous projects I’ve worked on biodiversity in the lower Mekong River and, more recently, in Eastern Europe on the Danube River and in the Carpathian Mountains, some of the last wild areas of Europe.”

As for the chances of doubling the tiger population, Mike believes the target will be met – eventually. “Globally, we may not double it by 2022, but if we get there two or three years later, it will be fantastic. This initiative has become an inspiration for others, with similar projects underway to protect certain species, like snow leopards and rhinos; the idea of intense action with high-level government commitment seems to make a difference.”

Mike spends much of his time working with governments of Tiger Range Countries (TRCs) – countries where tigers still roam free – and he has hopes that planning will pave the way for animals and humans to live together more cohesively in the future. He travels to India to see tigers as often as possible. “It only takes a day back in the forest to regenerate the energy.”

Bangladesh: 106
Bhutan: 103
China: > 7
India: 2,226
Indonesia: 371
Malaysia: 250
Myanmar: No current data available (estimated at 85 in 2010)
Nepal: 198
Russia: 433
Thailand: 189
Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam: Tigers are functionally extinct, and cannot naturally increase the population.

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