Malaysia's tigers have all but disappeared, and poachers from nearby countries have pushed them to the brink of extinction, according to a new report.
A four-year study of the country's big cats—the first scientific count ever conducted—discovered far fewer tigers than previously estimated, reporting as few as 250 left in the wild. Previous estimates had the country's tiger population between 500 and 1,500.
Malayan tigers (Panthera tigris jacksoni) are one of the six remaining tiger subspecies. Three tiger species were hunted into extinction in the 20th century, and current estimates put the wild population for all six subspecies at 3,000 tigers.
The new count was announced in a joint press statement by Malaysia's Department of Wildlife and National Parks and the Malaysian Conservation Alliance for Tigers. The organizations conducted camera-trap studies at seven sites between 2010 and 2013 and concluded that the country's tiger population was likely between 250 and 340 wild cats. The organizations said the Malayan tiger should be considered critically endangered and said Malaysia's plan to increase tiger populations to 1,000 by the year 2020 "may now be unachievable."
News of the smaller-than-expected population did not come as a surprise to Dr. John Goodrich, senior tiger program director for Panthera, the global big-cat conservation organization.
"We've all known for a long time that Malaysian tigers are in trouble," he said. "There's a lot of poaching going on there. It was really discouraging that the country wasn't recognizing that. Now they're recognizing that they've got a decline in their population, and they're recognizing that they have a serious poaching problem."
Goodrich blames the Malaysian poaching crisis on demand from China and Vietnam, where tiger bones and other body parts are still used as part of traditional medicine (and where prominent businessmen even pay to slaughter and eat tigers at private banquets).
The poachers come from nearby countries, such as Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos, where all or most of the native tigers have already been killed. "They're really flooding Malaysia," he said. "It's going to take a lot of work to get a handle on this problem."
"That's the poachers' bread and butter," Goodrich said. "But while they're in Malaysia, they're also poaching the tigers' prey to feed themselves"—one more factor working against the tigers.
While some poachers may not be targeting tigers, if they see signs that one is nearby, they'll hunt it down, knowing a good profit awaits them for the kill.
To combat the decline, Malaysia's Department of Wildlife and MYCAT are calling for patrols to protect tigers, undertaking a comprehensive nationwide survey of the big cats, increasing protective measures, and improving the implementation of the country's tiger conservation plan.
Goodrich says getting the Malayan tiger listed as critically endangered will help efforts to conserve it, as will improving anti-poaching law enforcement, something Malaysia has begun to do.
He points to a recent case in which a group of Cambodian poachers got six months in jail just for being illegally present in a protected forest. "We need more of that, to send a message that Malaysia will not tolerate foreign poachers coming in and stealing their natural resources," Goodrich said.