Tiger reintroduction planned for Kingdom

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The last tiger photographed in Cambodia by a camera trap in 2007 in Srepok Wildlife Sanctuary in Mondulkiri province. WWF CAMBODIA

Ministry of Environment spokesman Neth Pheaktra said the planned reintroduction of tigers is important because it would balance the ecosystem of the natural environment, noting that Cambodia is a country where the big cats once roamed widely.

During a July 29 zero-snaring campaign launch in Mondulkiri province, Pheaktra said the tiger programme would demonstrate the importance the government placed on restoring the lost species of Cambodia. Among the large species lost are not just the tiger, but the Javan rhinoceros and the kouprey, the forest oxen that is the national animal of the Kingdom.

“As conservationists, we regret that some species have been lost. We are working on this anti-snaring campaign to protect the endangered species that remain, including vultures, cranes, Siamese crocodile, banteng and the yellow-cheeked gibbon,” he said.

He added that the last wild tiger seen in Cambodia was photographed in a Mondulkiri wildlife sanctuary in 2007, noting that it has been 15 years since any evidence of a tiger population was identified. From the length of time that has passed, he concluded that the animal was no longer extant in the Kingdom.

To integrate the tiger back into the Kingdom’s forests, he said the ministry is cooperating with Wildlife Alliance Cambodia and are identifying an ideal site in the Cardamom Mountain ranges for its reintroduction. The tigers would likely be sourced from India, a nation with a healthy tiger population.

The ministry said that in early March, environment officials and conservation partners visited a 90ha natural forest area preserve in Koh Kong province, which has been prepared for the rehabilitation of tigers. The visit came after a meeting between environment minister Say Samal and Satya Prakash Yadav, director-general of forests under the Indian National Tiger Conservation Authority.

The visit was made by helicopter and attended by Loeung Kesarao, deputy head of the ministry’s General Department of Nature Protection and Conservation; Suwanna Gaunlet and Hout Sokun of Wildlife Alliance; Thomas Gray, representative of World Wide Fund for Nature Cambodia (WWF Cambodia); and an Indian delegation led by Yadav. The visit was also joined by Rajesh Gopal, secretary-general of the Global Tiger Forum

The team went to see the Tatai Wildlife Sanctuary, Phnom Samkos Wildlife Sanctuary, and Central and Northern Cardamom National Park.

Pheaktra could not confirm when the tigers would be brought to Cambodia and released into the wild.

He said the Sre Pok Wildlife Sanctuary is also an area with high potential for tiger integration. The ministry is now working with WWF Cambodia in the northeast to prepare a package of measures that ensure several endangered species are conserved and re-populated. A sustainable prey population of red muntjac, sambar, deers, banteng and gaur are crucial to the reintroduction of large predators like tigers.

“We are studying whether we can fence off a core area with a high density of wild animals, and then expand the space. This will be a very expensive and ambitious project, so we are exploring the possibilities very carefully,” he said.

He noted that during the Covid-19 pandemic, the ministry and its development partners had been mulling over the financial and practical ecosystem requirements of such a project. Their experience in other areas, such as Oddar Meanchey province, had taught them a lot. There, a fence was erected to conserve the wild animal population, and their numbers had increased significantly, he added.

WWF country director Seng Teak said the organisation has been working with partners on a programme called “Double tiger numbers” in 13 countries since 2010. The programme had met with mixed success, although the global tiger population increased from 3,200 to 4,652 from 2010 until now, according to a recent report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

He said India and Nepal had doubled their tiger populations, while Bhutan, China and Russia had also seen increases, although not to the same extent. Bangladesh and Thailand’s tiger populations had remained steady, while Myanmar, Malaysia and Indonesia have declining numbers. Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos no longer have a wild population capable of reproduction, if indeed any of these elusive cats remained at all.

Seng Teak said tigers could be used as an indicator species, meaning their presence showed a healthy forest. A male tiger required a sanctuary of at least 100sq km, he said.

“When I say tigers are indicators, I mean they are an excellent way to assess a forest. To thrive, tigers need dense, thick tree growth, clean water and enough large mammals to hunt,” he added.