- Conservationists have successfully applied an urban policing strategy to assess and fine-tune their efforts to tackle poaching of tigers in Peninsular Malaysia.
- They reported in a new paper that poaching success by hunters from Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand — the main group of poachers in the country — declined by up to 40% during the study period.
- The conservationists used the EMMIE crime prevention framework (short for effect, mechanisms, moderators, implementation and economic costs) to identify what worked and areas to improve.
- There are fewer than 200 critically endangered Malayan tigers believed to survive in Malaysia, with snaring by poachers among the leading causes of their decline.
Conservationists have for the first time adopted a crime analysis strategy developed for urban policing and applied it to assess the effectiveness of counterpoaching measures to protect the critically endangered Malayan tiger, according to a study published in Frontiers in Conservation Science.
A deep-forest ranger patrol was established by conservation NGO Panthera in collaboration with Indigenous Orang Asli guides and a rapid response team led by Malaysia’s Department of Wildlife and National Parks, known as SPARTA, to address tiger poaching. Researchers used a crime prevention framework — known as EMMIE, which analyses the effect, mechanisms, moderators, implementation and economics of interventions — to assess the project’s impact in Peninsular Malaysia.
The study authors report that between 2015 and 2019, poaching success by hunters from Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand declined by up to 40% as rangers intercepted or interrupted their incursions into the forest.
“There’s a lot of focus in trying to ensure that we don’t lose the tiger to extinction,” Wai Yee Lam, Malaysia country manager for Panthera and first author on the paper, told Mongabay in an interview. “What we also realize is there’s very little focus on evaluation of methods.”
“It’s a unique study,” said Joe Figel, a Fulbright scholar and research associate at the Memphis Zoological Society, who was not involved in the paper. “Very few studies have actually attempted, or successfully described the causal relationship between conservation action or interventions and the decline in poaching.”
A deep dive into the problem
Gathering data from multiple sources — such as findings by patrol teams, interviews with local community members, and post-arrest interviews with poachers — identified non-Malaysian poachers as a priority threat to tigers.
“We started asking questions like who were the ones that were hunting in the deep forests, who were the ones who were setting snares targeting tigers, who were really good at avoiding detection by rangers,” Lam said.
The researchers found that Cambodian poachers living in Malaysia primarily sought valuable agarwood, which is harvested and sold as incense, and set nylon snares to catch small animals for subsistence. By contrast, Vietnamese and Thai poaching teams set large cable-gauge snares intended for large-bodied animals such as tigers and sun bears to be sold in traditional medicine markets.
Apprehending poachers was also prioritized by the patrols. Only after rangers attempted arrests or disrupted an incursion by seizing equipment did a snare sweep in the surrounding area take place. In tandem, a “learn and adapt cycle” was implemented with each counterpoaching operation, followed by data analysis, debriefs and interviews to identify failures and areas to improve.
As a result, rangers became more successful at detecting and locating active poaching teams in the forest, Lam said. “We were able to intercept poaching teams while they were still active. This used to only happen by sheer chance or luck.”
Rangers also got better at dismantling snares before they harmed wildlife, she said.
Analyzing the success
Amid the backdrop of a snaring crisis in Southeast Asia, the critically endangered Malayan tiger (Panthera tigris jacksoni) is teetering on the verge of extinction, with fewer than 200 believed to survive in Malaysia.
Though set to fall short on the project’s overall goal of increasing the tiger population in Peninsular Malaysia’s Kenyir Core Area by 50% by 2024, the researchers reported a slight increase and overall stabilization of the area’s tiger population during the study period, including the survival and breeding of “key females.” Prey species such as the Sumatran serow and sambar deer remained at “extremely low” levels, while wild boar and southern red muntjac numbers stabilized.
“Stabilizing and preventing the decline is to me a win,” said Thomas Gray, tiger recovery lead with WWF’s Tigers Alive Initiative, who was not involved in the project.
Gray said the crime analysis and problem-orientated policing approach is valuable and could be applied elsewhere in Asia to address poaching and snaring. “A lot of our interventions to deal with wildlife crime in the field — how we deploy rangers, where we deploy rangers — are often not evidence-based. It seems from what the paper suggested that it made a difference.”
The project’s interventions reduced incursions by Malaysia-based Cambodian poaching teams, Lam said, but it also had its limitations. Snaring increased between 2015 and 2019 as Vietnamese poaching groups set more of the traps on each incursion, while factors such as family debt and exploitation driving these hunters made deterrence “complex and unlikely.”
“I think what the study is really showing is that there isn’t a silver bullet, or a broad-brush strategy to save tigers,” Lam said, adding that investing in “critical evaluation and problem analysis” is key to ensuring often limited resources are effectively targeted.
The team plans to continue to focus on crime prevention and problem analysis, while applying lessons learned in other protected areas. “We’re keeping our finger on the pulse of any changes in poaching patterns or threats that tigers and other wildlife are facing so that we are able to adapt and change along with them,” Lam said.
Banner image: Malayan tigers are on the brink of extinction. The recent paper, published in Frontiers in Conservation Science, found that the tiger population in the Kenyir Core Area remained below “recovery potential” but stabilized during the study period. Image courtesy of Panthera Malaysia/DWNP.
Lam, W. Y., Phung, C., Mat, Z. A., Jamaluddin, H., Sivayogam, C. P., Zainal Abidin, F. A., … Pickles, R. S. (2023). Using a crime prevention framework to evaluate tiger counter-poaching in a Southeast Asian rainforest. Frontiers in Conservation Science, 4. doi:10.3389/fcosc.2023.1213552
Croci, G., Laycock, G., & Chainey, S. (2022). A realistic approach to policy formulation: The adapted EMMIE framework. Policy Studies, 44(4), 433-453. doi:10.1080/01442872.2022.2077925
Ten, D. C., Jani, R., Hashim, N. H., Saaban, S., Abu Hashim, A. K., & Abdullah, M. T. (2021). Panthera tigris jacksoni population crash and impending extinction due to environmental perturbation and human-wildlife conflict. Animals, 11(4), 1032. doi:10.3390/ani11041032