DIONYSIUS SHARMA has an odd specialization: reptile reproduction. But in Malaysia, which has a shortage of animal experts, Sharma has had to become an instant expert on all things fauna, from lizards to elephants. Still, there's one creature he has yet to encounter.
"I've seen a lot of animals but I have never, ever seen a tiger in the wild," says the conservationist with the World Wide Fund for Nature in Kuala Lumpur.
Kae Kawanishi has the same story. She spent three years studying tigers in Taman Negara, a protected nature reserve in the heart of peninsular Malaysia. Even though camera images indicated there were about 90 tigers in the reserve, Kawanishi never saw any in the flesh.
Tell that to Abdullah Manat. Early on August 8, the 40-year-old rubber tapper was working in his smallholding in northeastern Kelantan state when he came face to face with Panthera tigris corbetti--the tiger subspecies most commonly found in Southeast Asia. The tiger pounced, mauling Abdullah about the face and head. He survived, but only by feigning death.
Abdullah was the fifth tiger victim in Kelantan this year. So far, three other villagers have died and one is missing. The attacks spread fear throughout the area, with villagers refusing to work their land without protection. And, shortly after Abdullah's tiger encounter, the attacks also sparked a national controversy when a leading Kelantan politician offered a drastic solution to the tiger problem.
"They should all be shot," declared Nik Aziz Nik Mat, chief minister of Kelantan and spiritual adviser to the country's main opposition party, the Islamic Party of Malaysia, or Pas. "Malaysia already has far too many tigers. They are better off dead."
The 71-year-old politician is highly respected in Malaysia, but he's no stranger to outrageous comments. Ten years ago, he defended his party's proposal to introduce Islamic sharia law by suggesting that flogging might offer long-term medical benefits: "The pain from the whipping would create a reaction in the body against the development of the Aids virus."
Not surprisingly, his comments on the tiger stirred outrage among conservationists and not a little incredulity. The tiger, after all, is a Malaysian icon: It has long featured in myths and legends, and the national crest features two tigers rampant. Moreover, as an endangered species, tigers are protected under the law; technically, Nik Aziz was suggesting the commission of a felony.
But ironically, his comments may actually end up helping the great cats. Nik Aziz has helped spotlight the rising number of conflicts between man and tiger in Malaysia. Unless national leaders act to save the tiger, and find ways to keep it away from humans, its future in Malaysia could be in doubt.
Malaysia's track record on saving the tiger hardly inspires confidence. At the time of independence in 1957, an estimated 4,000 tigers roamed the Malay Peninsula. In the rapid-fire growth of the 1960s and 1970s, vast tracts of forest--the tiger's natural habitat--were given over to growing rubber and oil palm as Malaysia worked to eradicate poverty in its rural heartland.
Today, conservationists estimate that only 500-600 tigers remain in Malaysia. But even though that figure is a fraction of former levels, it still accounts for almost half the remaining population of the Indo-Chinese tiger, which is scattered across Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
To help preserve the remaining tiger population, Kuala Lumpur in the 1970s created a series of nature reserves in thickly forested mountains in central peninsular Malaysia. Yet, new highway construction, logging and outright poaching have gone on eating into both the cat's habitat and actual tiger populations.
"It is far more likely that a person will eat a tiger in this country than the other way around," says Mikhail Kavanaugh Abdullah, the executive director of WWF Malaysia. "Tigers may be rarities on most menus but they, too, end up in the cooking pot." Although poaching is illegal, the leniency of the sentences handed down barely deters the crime.
The situation was made worse in Kelantan by the fact that the smallholdings where attacks occurred all extended into the forest and hadn't been fully cleared of undergrowth. "Tigers generally avoid human contact, which is why most of us haven't seen one. They see us first," says the WWF's Sharma. "But when smallholdings have thick underbrush, it's still the jungle as far as the tiger is concerned."
But a start on tackling the problem is being made. Take Jerangau in northeastern Terengganu state, where the world's first attempt to tackle human-tiger conflicts is being carried out. It began over a year ago after villagers complained about increasing tiger attacks on livestock. The WWF-led project, which costs about 150,000 ringgit ($39,500) a year and is funded by France, Japan and Malaysia, is aimed at tracking tigers in the jungles off Jerangau and trying to explain their behaviour.
Very quickly, the WWF found through camera traps a significant number of tigers: three residents in the area and nine "transients" (tigers just passing through). The research also showed that the deer population in the forests had dropped, which may be why the tigers began eyeing livestock.
As a result of these findings, the group spent 10,000 ringgit to build six new paddocks to house cattle and cleared the area of undergrowth. The state government, meanwhile, agreed to limit deer hunting. (In Kelantan, police have also agreed to limit licences for deer hunting). The Jerangau project is still going on, but no attacks have been reported in the area since it began.
Ironically, the WWF may be in a better position to carry out such projects in future as a result of Nik Aziz's comments. Since he spoke the group has found it easier to raise funds for tigers. Sharma thinks it's important work. "Tigers are a flagship species, the top predators," he says. "If tigers thrive, the whole ecosystem thrives."
Wildlife officials say they are only interested in maintaining the tiger population, not increasing it. And that, they say, is possible as long as the parks are maintained and the country's forests--even if they are logged--are managed properly. "So long as there are forests, there will be tigers," says Sharma. "I am optimistic."
Even Nik Aziz is having second thoughts. Recently he was quoted saying that he wasn't sure if tigers were on the Prophet Mohammed's list of animals that could be killed. "Scorpions and snakes can be killed," he said. "But I am not sure if tigers are also on the list."