Merapi and the last tigers
The Belum-Temengor Forest Complex is claimed to be one of the world’s oldest rainforests. It sits within the largest continuous forest complex in Peninsular Malaysia, sprawling the border with Thailand to the North. This rich ecosystem hosts a wide variety of flora and fauna; a chorus of over 300 bird species sing from the canopy and around 130 mammal species dwell below – among them are 14 of the world’s most endangered species. It is also one of just three remaining strongholds for Malaysia’s tigers.
In 2019, the preliminary results of Malaysia’s first National Tiger Census bore devastating results. The population estimate has plummeted to less than 200 individuals, from an already fragile figure of 500 in 2003. The severe decline is largely due to an insidious threat pervasive across Southeast Asia: snares. Home-made wire or cable snares hidden on the forest floor are one of the most simple and effective hunting techniques practiced in the tropics. Widely accessible, easy to set up and impossible to detect – snares are the silent killer emptying Malaysia’s forests. For tigers they are a double threat: indiscriminate, the snares kill not only the tigers, but also their critical prey base.
Merapi is a senior member of an indigenous patrol team working with WWF-Malaysia to combat the snaring crisis.
My name is Merapi Mat Razi. I’m 28 years old. I live in Raba village in the Belum- Temengor Forest Complex. Our village sits on flat land, surrounded by green hills. It is peaceful here. At night I mostly hear the stream in front of my house which I share with my family. My neighbours have a small vegetable farm, and a few cattle that roam freely.
In my free time I like to go fishing in the nearby lake. In the past I would hunt squirrels and leaf monkeys, but that was when the wildlife was abundant. A lot has changed here in the last ten years. I have noticed the decline in wildlife due to the snaring.
“If we can prevent poaching and remove the snares, the number of animals will increase. It is hard work, but I feel it is important to protect my home and the wildlife living within it.”
I start work at around 9am, patrolling on foot for 7 to 10 kilometers per day. It takes around eight hours before I head back to basecamp. I walk along old logging roads, ridges, alongside the streams. It’s tiring, and the weather slows me down if it’s raining or especially hot. My job is to remove or destroy snares I find. I also try to assist enforcement agencies to arrest poachers. Recently I have been training juniors within my community to help in the fight against poaching, together with WWF-Malaysia’s Project Stampede team – a group of community members mobilised as an emergency response to the snare crisis. In total we are around 65 people.
In 2018 our team received information about an incursion in Royal Belum State Park. We mobilised a team to check for snares in the area. On that trip alone, we found at least 100 snares. Sadly, we also found the carcasses of a wild boar and two sun bears. The animals had been trapped, but the poachers had already disappeared.
I have encountered poachers in the forest around five times. On one occasion, we happened upon two men dressed in green uniforms. We greeted one another, and reported the incident to my colleagues outside the forest. This is what we have to do to be safe. As we don’t have enforcement powers, we remain non-confrontational for our own safety, and do not give any indication that we are conducting anti-poaching activities.
Yes, the work can be dangerous. The poachers set many snares in the forest. All different sizes, they can catch tigers, wild boar, barking deer, sambar, sun bears, pheasants and even elephants. I remember a very scary moment whilst out trekking along a ridge near the Gadong River with the team. One of my team members suddenly stepped on a snare and was caught. It looked like the snare had been there for one month, waiting to be triggered.
“We destroyed that snare, along with the other five just ahead of it. Each was 6mm in diameter – big enough to injure animals as large as elephants.”
I will never forget the day I saw a wild tiger back in 2011. That day my team and I were patrolling along a trail next to Perak River, heading eastward. While on a ridge, we stopped to rest. Out of nowhere, just 100 metres away, a tiger leapt onto the trail, and fled. We stood in silence in a state of shock. We think perhaps it was startled by our voices.
Thanks to the patrols led by Merapi, and those mobilised as part of Project Stampede, active snare encounters have been reduced by 89% in Belum-Temengor. But this is a stop-gap measure. Without major, imminent intervention, Malaysia’s national icon could be extinct within two years. WWF is supporting the Malaysian Government to establish long- term, sustainable solutions to protect Malaysia’s tigers and secure a future for all the biodiversity in Belum-Temengor.