- Following a tiger mauling that killed an Indigenous Temiar man in Malaysia's Kelantan state, officials, conservationists and Indigenous advocacy groups have been in a heated debate over the causes of human-wildlife conflict in the state.
- Indigenous communities and academics point to deforestation for logging, agriculture and infrastructure projects as the root cause of tiger attacks.
- State officials deny there is any link between deforestation and increasing contact between people and wildlife; one official even claimed that deforestation is good for tigers.
A senior Malaysian forestry official faces serious public backlash after claiming logging is beneficial for tigers.
The claim, made by Abdul Khalim Abu Samah, director of the Kelantan state forestry department, during a Jan. 24 press conference, was the latest salvo in a heated debate between Malaysian officials and Indigenous communities over the impacts of deforestation after a tiger mauling left a man dead in Kelantan on Jan. 7.
The incident was the fourth recorded attack on a human by wildlife in the area in the past five years, and the second with fatal consequences. The incident spurred the Kelantan Orang Asli Village Network (JKOAK), an Indigenous peoples’ advocacy group, to write directly to the prime minister calling for an immediate halt to logging, which they blame for causing the crisis between wild animals and Orang Asli communities.
However, Kelantan officials have hit back, saying deforestation played no role in the man’s death. In addition to the claim made by Khalim, Kelantan’s chief minister deputy minister, Mohd Amar Nik Abdullah, told reporters that logging wasn’t a factor in the tiger attack; his suggestion for protecting the villagers was investigating and capturing the Malayan tigers (Panthera tigris jacksoni).
The attack in early January that led to the death of Anek Along, an Indigenous Temiar man, is the most recent in a series of incidents of serious conflict between Orang Asli and wildlife in Kelantan.
In the month before Along was killed, multiple sightings of three tigers were reported around nearby villages.
Prior to that, in 2017 and 2019, a child and an adult were seriously injured in an encounter with sun bears (Helarctos malayanus) not far from their villages. In 2021, two serious attacks by leopards (Panthera pardus delacouri) were reported, one of which left a man dead near his home.
Speaking to Mongabay, Dendi, a Temiar man who was one of four to submit the memorandum to the PM’s office, drew parallels between his people’s experience of attacks by wildlife and their treatment by loggers and developers. “The wildlife and human crisis is very similar to [how] we have been affected by the effects of deforestation,” he said.
His village, Dendi said, has suffered from development projects that were launched on traditional land without free, prior and informed consent. “We have been living unhealthy and insecure lives,” he said. “We sent a memorandum to the government of Malaysia to ensure the well-being and harmony of the Orang Asli community can be protected. The wildlife and human crisis is a very serious matter.”
The JKOAK memorandum submitted to the prime minister details previous attacks by wildlife and demands an immediate halt to logging and mining activities in the state. The memorandum also demands the PM cancel a major hydropower project on the Sungai Nenggiri River “because this river area is not only an area with an early history of Orang Asli settlement but also rich in flora and fauna. The forest area along the Nenggiri river is also a habitat for wildlife, including bears, tigers and elephants. The remaining forest is very small, and it is worrying that if the plan to build the Hydroelectric Dam goes ahead, the area of the remaining forest will become smaller and if this happens the crisis between wildlife and Orang Asli will become more acute.”
Finally, they called for the government to conduct an immediate investigation into the latest mauling “in view of the inefficient actions taken by the authorities that have involved casualties.”
The tiger that killed Along was eventually shot and killed by rangers from the Wildlife and National Parks Department (Perhilitan). However, the villagers criticized Perhilitan for its handling of the situation, accusing the rangers of aggravating tigers by throwing firecrackers at them.
The remaining Temiar villagers say this mishandling means they now live in fear of further attacks.
What of the tigers?
The Malayan tiger is critically endangered, with fewer than 150 left in the wild. In response to the attack, Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob released a statement promising to protect the species: “The government is serious about addressing the population issue of the Malayan tiger in our forests. Among others, this is caused by the loss of habitat and food sources due to the shift in land usage, hunting and illegal wildlife trade.”
Ismail also noted that the Wildlife Conservation Act 2010 was amended in 2021 to increase fines and prison time for wildlife criminals. However, he did not address the deforestation problem that JKOAK and academics say is driving wildlife out of their natural habitats.
Malaysia’s coverage of pristine, virgin forest has fallen from 90% of the country’s total land mass 100 years ago to just 20% today, according to Teckwyn Lim, adjunct professor in ecology at the University of Nottingham Malaysia. “Tiger habitat is a fraction of what it was 100 years ago,” he told Mongabay, “and, as a result, tiger numbers as well are a fraction of what they were 100 years ago.”
The state forestry department, however, has publicly rejected a connection between forest loss, declining tiger populations, and increased human-wildlife conflict.
On Jan. 17, a drone image that appeared to show logging activity in tiger habitat near the village where the attack occurred went viral. The Kelantan Forestry Department denied that the photo was taken near tiger habitat or near the Orang Asli village in Pos Bihai, saying instead that the image was taken 5-6 kilometers (3-4 miles) from the location of the latest attack. However, tigers are known to range over huge territories, spanning hundreds of square kilometers in areas with low prey density, such as the Malaysian rainforest.
The following week, in his now-notorious statement, department director Khalim even said that deforestation is beneficial to tigers. He told a press conference that, “The tiger population will become larger when small trees grow in the deforested area. The area will see the presence of animals such as mouse deers which is food for tigers. It will make it easier for tigers to hunt their prey. But in the forest reserve it is difficult for tigers to catch victims.”Khalim’s comments were ridiculed by opposition politicians and activists, with Lim Lip Eng an opposition member of parliament, saying the forestry director must be dreaming of his house cat.
The basis for Khalim’s statements appears to be a 2009 study of tigers in Kelantan, which did conclude that selectively logged forest could potentially harbor dense tiger populations, since removing trees from an otherwise intact forest could increase sunlight reaching the forest floor, thus increasing vegetation and prey.
However, in an op-ed published Jan. 25 in the Malay Mail, researcher Mark Rayan Darmaraj, lead author of the 2009 study, wrote, “It is important for people not to misinterpret and cherry pick suggestive lines from this publication.”
He went on to clarify the difference between deforestation and logging. Logging refers to selectively removing timber”, which may degrade the area but nonetheless leaves it intact as natural forest. Deforestation, on the other hand, “happens when the entire forest is cleared to make way for a different sort of land-use typically plantations, development projects or infrastructure.
“Clear felling is not good for any wildlife including tigers. Period!” he added.
Darmaraj noted that the 2009 paper did conclude that logging could lead to increased ground vegetation and thus increased tiger population, but that the paper clearly states this hypothesis needs to be investigated further. Importantly, Darmaraj’s later Ph.D. thesis clearly states “that tigers had a much higher density in a primary forest compared to a logged forest even though they were adjacent to each other.”
Thomas Gray, tiger landscape and recovery lead at WWF, concurred, and also noted the need to differentiate between types of forest loss: “There is a significant body of literature [showing] that intact forests, undisturbed and unlogged, are better for biodiversity … and better for tigers than logged forest, and logged forest is better than deforested forest. So there is a spectrum there.”
Moreover, Gray said, loss of prey — which he identified as the biggest factor in the decline of Malaysia’s tiger populations — is closely tied to logging. “The opening up of forests to logging, [which involves] constructing roads and improving access, reduces [habitat] value for tigers,” Gray said.
On the front lines
For Dendi, the deforestation debate goes beyond this tiger incident. “Our crops are also deficient as a result of being destroyed by a herd of elephants, monkeys and pigs. This is all due to the effects of deforestation and the destruction of natural forests that are becoming extinct and forests are shrinking.
“For centuries, fish [has been] the main protein for our Orang Asli Temiar in Ulu Gua Musang Kelantan, but due to deforestation we have difficulty getting food,” he added. “As a result, our children lack nutrients.
“The prime minister of Malaysia mentioned that the Malayan tigers should be saved, this question is very sad for all of us. The forest is becoming extinct. Where do the Malayan tigers have their habitat? This is what we are facing.”
Mongabay staff writer Carolyn Cowan contributed reporting to this article.
- Rayan, D. M., & Mohamad, S. W. (2009). The importance of selectively logged forests for tiger Panthera tigris conservation: A population density estimate in Peninsular Malaysia. Oryx, 43(01), 48. doi:10.1017/s0030605308001890
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