Tigers Are Functionally Extinct In Cambodia

Cambodia's forests of the night could soon host tigers again. Luke Wait/Shutterstock

Cambodia has launched a plan to return tigers to the country, starting by acknowledging that the apex predator is locally “functionally extinct”.

If the first stage of solving a problem is admitting you have it, Cambodia has taken its time on this one. According to conservation group WWF the last recording of a tiger in the country was in 2007, when a camera trap detected one in Mondulkiri province.

Nevertheless there is hope. WWF has released a brochure demonstrating that, despite the destruction of much of Cambodia's forests, enough remains to support a sustainable tiger population. More importantly, the government has recognized the importance of the big cats to the local ecosystem, agreeing to reintroduce them to protected forest in Mondulkiri.

The Guardian quoted Ken Omaliss of the Cambodian Forestry Administration telling reporters: “We want two male tigers and five to six females tigers for the start.” The long-term goal is a population of 150. Talks are taking place with countries with surviving tiger populations to source wild animals. This is considered more realistic than trying to get animals raised in captivity, where they are now more common, to adapt to having to fend for themselves.

Acquiring the starting tiger population is easy compared to keeping them alive in a country so close to the major consumers of tiger products, however. Nevertheless, Omaliss expressed an intent to spend between $20 million and $50 million on the project, including enforcement of anti-poaching legislation and protection of prey species.

The money is a big commitment for a country still recovering from one of the worst modern atrocities and decades of civil war. However, if eventually tigers do once again burn bright in Cambodia's forests the plan could pay for itself. WWF note that, “Throughout the 1960s, Cambodia was even compared to the game lands of East Africa, becoming internationally known for its wildlife, including large numbers of tigers."

Maybe one day the population will even be large enough for scenes like this. Nachiketa Bajaj/Shutterstock

The WWF brochure claims 83 percent support for the reintroduction of tigers among villagers living near the Mondulkiri protected forest, where the reintroduction is to occur. It quotes Hun Vanne, a ranger in the protected forest, saying, “Wildlife keeps the forest ecosystem balanced... I hope that we can protect the forest and wildlife so that it can benefit eco-tourism and support villagers' livelihoods.”

Panthera tigris need plenty of territory to range across, and are in constant danger of being killed, either by poachers or by understandably anxious populations living nearby. Nevertheless, the recent increase in the population of Indian tigers has proved their decline is not inevitable. Cambodia is one of 13 countries that has made a commitment to being part of doubling wild tiger populations by 2022. 

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