Thailand could support as many as 2,000 wild tigers, 3 times current level
BANGKOK, Thailand -- Thailand's parks and wildlife reserves could hold up to 2,000 wild tigers, about three times their current level, but only if the government steps up efforts to control poaching, researchers said Monday.
The country's Western Forest Complex, 6,900 square miles (18,000 square kilometers) of protected jungle habitat, currently holds 720 tigers, according to a study by Thailand's Department of National Park, Wildlife, and Plant Conservation and the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society.
However, the area could support nearly three times as many tigers, as long as the government keeps its remaining forests intact and beefs up its anti-poaching efforts.
"Thailand has the potential to be a global centerpiece for tiger conservation," said Anak Pattanavibool of the Wildlife Conservation Society's Thailand Program and a co-author of the study that appears in the current issue of the peer-reviewed journal Oryx.
"This study underscores that there is an opportunity for tigers to thrive in Thailand provided tigers and their major prey species are protected from poachers."
Tigers across Asia have seen their numbers plummet, from 100,000 more than 150 years ago to only about 5,000 today. From India to Indonesia, tigers are mostly under threat due to habitat loss and poachers who sell their skins and body parts to booming medicinal and souvenir markets mostly in China.
Using survey data from camera traps in Thailand's Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary in 2004, Anak and his team were able to determine that the density of tigers in this rugged and hilly reserve located about 300 kilometers (186 miles) west of the capital, Bangkok, were three times lower than in comparable, but better-protected tiger reserves in India.
As a result, Anak surmised that reserves like Huai Kha could support many more tigers.
Conservationists in Thailand agreed the tiger numbers could be increased, but only if the government does more to eliminate trafficking networks that operate out of the country. Part of the problem, they said, is that the courts until now have refused to jail tiger traffickers, choosing instead to hand down small fines.
"Thailand hosts some of the biggest tiger traffickers in the region," said Steve Galster, director of field operations for the Wildlife Alliance, which was not connected to the study.
"There is no chance for tigers to come back until those traffickers are put behind bars," he said. "The Thai police have stepped up their efforts to investigate and fine tiger traffickers. But they don't have a good strong law to support them."