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Habitat Loss Continues to Put Squeeze on Disappearing Tigers

Environment: The cats' population has plunged 95% over the last century, to just 5,000. Attacks on humans are one result of shrinking territory.


LEMBAH BELUM, Malaysia — Radhi Kunoh was awakened by her husband's terrified last words-- "Help! It's a tiger!"

The last time she saw Nuri Along alive, the fierce beast was dragging him out of their village, its jaws locked around his head. She still can't get herself to speak about it and avoids reporters who try to reach her.

"She just grabbed her 2-month-old baby and dragged her three sleeping children out to the safety of a neighbor's hut," said Abu Osman Karim, a welfare official who counseled the woman, recounting what Radhi told him.

Wildlife officials immediately set out to trap the tiger. Thirteen days later, it was hunted down and killed.

Both the tiger and its prey were the latest victims of a bitter conflict between man and nature brought on by human encroachment on a shrinking forest habitat.

The conflict has forced game wardens trained to protect the big cats to sometimes become their executioners.

"It is not something I'm proud of --killing a tiger," said Mokhtar Muhammad, the district wildlife chief.

But he said there was no choice. "Once it starts attacking humans, it is either very ill and weak or injured. It will continue killing people."

With the relentless spread of oil palm and rubber plantations wiping out forest land, more tigers are venturing into nearby agricultural lands to prey on livestock, earning the fear and fury of villagers.

Nuri's death was the second blamed on a tiger attack this year. More than a half dozen people have been attacked over the last two years.

Conservationists say the killing of tigers blamed for preying on farm areas is threatening a cat population that numbers barely 500. They blame the man-tiger conflict on bad policies and ignorance about the animals.

Lush greenery covers 45% of the Malaysian peninsula. But the World Conservation Monitoring Center, a United Nations body, says protected forests account for only 9.9% of the country's land, well below neighbors like Thailand and Indonesia.

Rubber, since the early 1900s, and palm oil, in recent years, were the cash crops underpinning the Malaysian economy until it turned into a full-fledged high-tech trading nation. Clearing of forests and development left tigers little space to live and hunt.

"Habitat loss is the biggest threat to our tigers," said Wan Shahruddin Nordin, a tiger specialist in the government's Department of Wildlife and National Parks. "If we conserve the habitat, we will automatically conserve the animals."

A symbol of power and strength in Malay culture, tigers roar on the emblems of locally made cars, pace the badge of the nation's oldest university and adorn the Malaysian coat of arms.

Malay royalty and British sahibs hunted the tiger for sport, and game hunts were allowed until a 1972 law outlawed killing the cats.

Poachers, however, still plunder forests across Asia looking for tigers, selling body parts for huge profits to makers of Chinese traditional medicine and tiger skin collectors.

Of eight known tiger subspecies worldwide, three have become extinct. Population plunged 95% over the last century, leaving just 5,000 tigers in the world.

The Malaysian branch of the Worldwide Fund for Nature says the government needs to focus on keeping forests intact by providing financial incentives to offset the rewards of timber cutting.

Dionysius Sharma, senior head of the group's Animal Species Conservation Unit, said other big animals like Asian elephants and Sumatran rhinos are also moving out of shrinking forests to seek food and water.

"Mark my words, over the next few years there are going to be a lot of conflicts," he said.

He suggested that "forest corridors" be created to link the remaining large tracts of trees, giving tigers and other large mammals more land to move in.

The government has begun taking steps.

Part of the Belum Valley Forest, where Nuri was killed, will be decreed a protected state park soon, said Mokhtar, the wildlife department official.

The densely wooded swath extends to Thailand, where the government there has already created the Halabala National Park. The total area is about 1,160 square miles.

"You cannot put a price to these things. Sometimes people fail to understand how valuable it is to preserve what we have," Mokhtar said.

The villagers living at the edge of the Belum forest, members of the Jahai and Temiar tribes, may fear the tigers, but they also say they accept the cats' presence.

"We are all part of God's creation, and we learn to live in harmony with the animals," said Samad Jerangong, headman of Semelor village.

"They are only trying to survive, just like we are."


Wildlife Conservation Society site on tigers:

World Wildlife Fund site on threatened species:

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