A tiger in your garden?
What is the future for tigers in Thailand? Would a Chiang Mai gardener ever encounter one in his garden?
There are no tigers left in the Chiang Mai province in northern Thailand. The father of one of Dokmai Garden‘s gardeners claims he saw one “about ten years ago” in Mae Khanin Tai just 12 km west of Dokmai Garden, but since the man is old it could as well have been 20 or 30 years ago. He also brags about killing the last leopard at about the same time.
In spite of three national parks west of Chiang Mai city (Doi Inthanon, Opkhan and Doi Pui/Doi Suthep) it is quite unlikely tigers will ever return to the vicinity of Chiang Mai. This is because they are dangerous to humans and their domesticated animals. The question is, will they survive anywhere in Thailand at all? In regions without human habitation they could theoretically thrive as a reminder of a world before man, but due to beliefs in superstitious medicine they are still being hunted illegally, along with numerous other animals such as pangolins. There is nothing wrong with the Thai laws, but the national park rangers have not enough resources, salaries or education, and the Chinese buyers of tiger products are too selfish to care.
Estimating the numbers of tigers is difficult. Inventories based on tracks, faeces, carcasses and tiger calls can only be rough, and actual sightings are rare due to the density of Thai forests. Five years ago some figures pointed at 500 specimens left in Thailand, figures from 2012 mention 200. However, a recent unofficial estimate from one Thai forest alone points at 600 specimens.
What about the Zoos? They do harbour many tigers and tigers reproduce easily in captivity. Many western zoos are involved in actual rescue of endangered species by returning offspring to the wild, while many Asian zoos use their animals as clowns for income. Animals kept in zoos will quickly degenerate in just a few generations into something different from the original species, with low chances of survival on their own. Without teaching the public and without research or restoration efforts such zoos are just money machines.
Parken Zoo in Eskilstuna, Sweden, have a remarkable collection of Asian mammals. The zoo is so devoted at rescue projects they simply got rid of their white tigers, as these specimens were considered unnatural mutants aimed at the entertainment industry. The real wild population of white tigers in India must not be touched but protected in the wild.
I believe the entertainment has to move out into the forest. Like in Africa, the income from safaris may help the survival of big game by returning the money to the people and to the national park rangers. In an effort to investigate these possibilities Dokmai Garden intends to study a Thai forest with a comparatively ‘high’ density of tigers. At this stage we can only bring personal friends with a love for wildlife to prevent that information may reach poachers. With careful planning and collaboration with authorities and locals it might be possible to go on future tiger safaris. Like with the Thai orchids, such a dream may take decades until superstition disappears and the national parks are truly safe from illegal hunting. It is during this transition stage orchids and tigers are vulnerable, they may disappear for ever like the sperm whales outside Madeira, or they may recover like sea-eagle, otter, bear, lynx and wolverine in Sweden.
Text: Eric Danell
Photo: Duncan Smart