The tiger. Majestic, powerful and one of the most iconic animals on the planet. As Malaysia's national animal, the striped big cat has great significance to the country, both adorning the national emblem and flying the flag for the Peninsula's spectacular array of biodiversity.
Yet wild tiger numbers have - and continue to - sharply decline.
This year, the Government of Malaysia took a crucial step towards Tx2, the global goal to double wild tiger numbers, by announcing its intention to conduct the first ever national tiger survey for Malaysia. This will not only reveal how many wild tigers there are, but also where they are and how best to protect them.
Leaving the sprawling concrete jungle of Kuala Lumpur, we travelled 5 hours north to lowland tropical rainforest to find out exactly what it takes to survey Malaysia's wild tigers.
WWF Malaysia's field team are based in Gerik, a small town surrounded by rolling expanses of wild green forest. The team are tasked with surveying Belum-Temengor; one of the three priority areas for wild tigers in the country.
Belum-Temengor is among the largest continuous swathes of forest in Peninsular Malaysia and home to an impressive array of wildlife. Gibbons, hornbills and flying squirrels scale the tree canopies, whilst elephants, sun bears and pangolins forage through the undergrowth below.
A variety of beautifully patterned felines also prowl the landscape; leopards, clouded leopards, leopard cats, marbled cats and of course - the tiger.
Yet despite being the world's largest cat species, tracking tigers is no easy task. Their inky stripes are the ultimate cloak of camouflage and like all good predators, they are sleek, silent and elusive. Each tiger roams a huge amount of territory that overlaps with very few other tigers. Coupled with the thick, dense foliage of tropical rainforest, observing tigers directly is impractical, and near impossible.
Therefore, the WWF team uses two key methods to establish the number of tigers and their prey: camera traps and sign surveys.
CAMERA TRAPS: Conservation through Cameras
Camera traps are the eyes of the forest. These simple but effective devices have revolutionised the way scientists study wildlife.
Placed in strategic, remote areas of wilderness, camera traps are a non-invasive way to gather information about a species. When an animal passes the infrared beam of the camera trap, it triggers a heat and motion sensor and a photograph is taken.
Setting camera traps is an art. Everything must be carefully planned to maximise the chances of the device not only photographing wildlife, but surviving the harsh conditions of the forest 24/7, for months on end.
The first line of defense for the technology is a sturdy, weather-proof casing. The cameras are tested several times and packed with 8-10 batteries. The most important factor in a camera trap's success though, is its location.
Before stepping foot in the forest, the field team map out their daily hiking routes and identify approximate points of where the camera traps should be set.
With tigers, the goal is to photograph both sides of their profile. Each tiger's stripe pattern is as unique to them as fingerprints are to us and can be used to identify each individual tiger. When approaching the area marked on the map, the team begin searching for two sturdy tree trunks to attach the camera traps to. Trees on either side of a natural clearing are ideal, as a range of species are likely to pass through the area.
Once suitable trees are located, the height and angle of each camera trap is carefully judged. A small red light flashes when the movement sensors are triggered so a designated team member crouches down to tiger level and passes the sensor several times, checking the camera's range. Any stray branches, plants and vines are cut to ensure a clear line of vision. A test shot is taken detailing the camera number and location.
The camera traps are ready.
With one last thoughtful glance (what wildlife images will they capture?), the trekking recommences and the other half of the survey continues...
SIGN SURVEYS: Following in an Animal's Footsteps
When inspected closely, the forest floor can be a journal of its inhabitants. Animal prints, claw marks, dens, nests, wallows, scat and bones are all indicators of which species are present in the area.
The field team record these meticulously, noting the GPS location and photographing any evidence next to a ruler. This is especially useful for animal tracks, where the size and shape of the print can be verified with a wildlife identification manual if necessary.
Tiger paw prints, also known as pugmarks, are distinctive.
Since the 1970s, pugmarks have been an important focus of tiger censuses. Left, right, hind and front paws can all be differentiated and provide useful information about the tiger such as whether they are male or female, an adult, juvenile or cub.
Ungulates, or hoofed animals, are also of particular interest during tiger surveys. Being the main prey of the striped big cats, their numbers have a significant impact on tiger survival.
Yet the scope of the census is not limited to tigers, ungulates and other wildlife. It encompasses humans too; the poachers, encroachers and illegal loggers of the forest. The people who are stripping and stealing Malaysia's natural resources. Any boot footprints, traps, snares, litter and campsites are recorded. This crucial information identifies threats to the forest and can feed into a tightened protection of the area.
THE DEDICATED FIELD TEAM: Life in the Forest
Setting camera traps and tracking wildlife in the jungle sounds like an idyllic job. But the rainforest is a surprisingly harsh environment, meaning the work is intense, physically demanding and wrought with challenges.
In the remote wilderness, there are often no distinct paths. The team hack through walls of waist-high plants, wade through rivers, crawl through blocks of fallen bamboo, clamber over obstacles and scale up (and down) unforgiving vertical slopes.
The air is thick, humid and muggy. The rain is frequent and intense, making inaccessible paths even more inaccessible. Caked in sweat, mud, bruises, leeches and mosquitoes, the team trek all day, every day for several days on end.
Altogether, the field team's seven dedicated members will be intensively surveying Belum-Temengor for a month and a half.
After that, they will hike, wade, climb and crawl their way back through the wilderness on a monthly basis to collect the memory cards from the camera traps.
This is crucial work towards ensuring the future of wild tigers in South East Asia.
And ultimately it is done not just to protect the majestic big cats, but Malaysia's natural environment as a whole.
Find out more about WWF Malaysia's work and how you can make a difference for wild tigers, wherever you are in the world.