Deep in the jungle, armed forest rangers trek through the palms on a mission to confirm some rare good news: the discovery of a wild tiger population in an area of Thap Lan National Park previously written off by wildlife experts.
Working with foreign conservationists, the rangers have been gathering evidence from camera traps over the past two years that suggests this single national park in Thailand may have more tigers than China.
Thap Lan, with its spectacular forests of saw-bladed plan palms, is an oasis of biodiversity amid expanding human development. Elephants, clouded leopards, spotted linsang, boar and deer thrive below the canopy, which is filled with the song of myna, lapwings, laughing thrushes and other exotic birds.
Locals have long insisted that tigers also prowl in this area. Camera traps, triggered by heat and movement, have been left strapped to trees for a month. Some have been destroyed by wild elephants or infested by nesting ants, but the memory cards inside have yielded a trove of images of bears, leopards, itinerant monks, as well as tigers and — worryingly — armed poachers.
More than half the park has still to be checked, but rangers have already confirmed eight tigers. This is not yet enough to be classified as a sustainable population, but park managers are optimistic more animals will be found.
“I’m very happy as this is beyond expectations,” Thap Lan superintendent Taywin Meesat said. “There are areas deeper inside where we haven’t placed camera traps yet. Given the results so far, there could be 20 to 50 tigers here.”
The conservation group that provided much of the training and equipment for the operation said the results showed a gap in understanding and the need to invest more in research and protection.
“This place was supposed to be devoid of tigers. But we did a course here and were surprised to find signs of tigers. The more we looked, the more we found. That led me to believe the forest must have tigers throughout and there is a big gap in our knowledge of where they live,” said Tim Redford of Freedland, a Bangkok-based group that helps rangers in Southeast Asia.
He called for further studies across countries where other small populations may have been missed.
The discovery comes amid a fresh global push to reverse a precipitous decline in the numbers of wild tigers, down 97 percent compared with a century ago. At the St Petersburg tiger summit last year, participants, including the World Bank, non-governmental organizations and range states, pledged US$329 million to help double the predators’ numbers in the wild from the current level of about 3,200.
However, the new hope in Thap Lan is mixed with old fears. Thailand is thought to be home to between 250 and 300 wild tigers, but they are vulnerable. The biggest threat is a loss of habitat. Although nominally protected, Thailand’s national parks are being encroached upon by human development, particularly monoculture plantations, roads and second homes for Bangkok’s rich. Many locals also subsidize their incomes by poaching and illegally logging aloe and tropical hardwood. Park managers and police are worried that poachers and illegal traders would target the tigers once news gets out.
Rangers mount night patrols and public education campaigns to halt these activities. It can be dangerous work. A Thap Lan ranger was killed in a gun battle with poachers three years ago. In Cambodia, forest protectors have been murdered in hand grenade attacks.