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From the dense jungles of Southeast Asia to the sprawling forested foothills of the Himalayas, big cats roam across a vast range of landscapes in Asia, often elusive and alone, in search of prey and mates. Whether tigers, leopards, snow leopards, these big cats are perfectly engineered and adapted to roam and hunt in the most extreme conditions on the planet.
But against all their strengths, big cats are clinging on for survival. One of their biggest threats? Snares, rudimentary traps which today exist in the millions on forest floors and snowy mountain pathways across Asia, barely visible to the eye but a fatal danger to all wildlife.
Predators of predators
In Malaysia’s Belum-Temengor Forest Complex, one of the world’s oldest rainforests and part of the largest continuous forest in the country, a team of rangers are walking through the thick, dense vegetation and warm, humid air carrying out a routine patrol.
The pristine and mostly untouched forests they are roaming through are home to 14 of the globally threatened mammal species including the Asian elephant, sun bear and Malayan tapir, and these rangers are determined to protect them.
Suddenly, they hear a noise that stops them in their tracks: a thundering roar, accompanied by groans and growls, coming from only a few feet away. Another rare and critically endangered species who roams Belum-Temengor: the tiger.
“Many of the rangers just ran in different directions, and some of them even climbed the trees,” recalls Christopher Wong, Manager, Tiger Habitat Conservation, Tiger Conservation Programme at WWF-Malaysia.
But the sound of the roar did not move closer or further away. “It was as if the tiger was stuck in the same spot,” he remembers.
The team regrouped and bravely decided to approach the roar, suspecting an injured animal. Slowly, the groan revealed a striped predator, larger than an adult human, laid on the ground, held fast by the tightened noose of a thick cable snare.
“The snare had ripped deep into the tiger’s flesh,” Christopher, who had rushed to help at the scene where the tiger was tranquilised, said. “When they successfully removed the snare, they loaded the tiger on a truck and sent it to a facility for treatment. But unfortunately, the tiger died two weeks later because of an infection.”
The tiger has remained ingrained in Christopher’s memory, not only because it was his first time coming face-to-face with one in the wild – despite studying the species for almost 15 years – but also because its cries of agony are difficult to forget.
But this young male tiger is one of untold numbers of snare victims. It is estimated that over 12 million snares are set every year throughout protected areas in Cambodia, Lao People’s Democratic Republic , and Viet Nam. While this is an astounding figure, the total number of snares laid across Asia is likely to be much higher.
In Malaysia, snares are a key reason tiger numbers have plummeted to fewer than 150 individuals. One landscape - Belum Temengor - lost over half of its tigers in a two year period from 2016-2018. The main culprit? Snares.
“One time I was patrolling, I was checking around one of my areas. In that single day, I found a hundred wired snares,” said Merapi Mat Razi, a senior member of an indigenous patrol team from the Jahai tribe in the Belum-Temengor Forest Complex. “I found many animals caught, the sun bear, tiger, wild boar, barking deer and many more. I found skulls. I felt furious. I destroyed all those snares, a hundred of them in a day.”
And these snares don’t discriminate. Whether tiger or tapir, snares are never picky. A new WWF-TRAFFIC briefing highlights how big cats across Asia including leopards, snow leopards and Asiatic lions also suffer from the widespread use of this silent killer throughout their range.
Locating the invisible
You’d think you’d need a state-of-the-art device to be able to kill predators at the top of the food chain. But these frail and flimsy-looking commercial snares are simply flexible nooses that can be made from brake cables, wire nylon, bike clutches or rope - cheap and widely available materials. In fact, most snares are barely visible to the eye.
“It’s very simple to remove a snare, but it’s difficult to find one,” said Qiu Shi, a member of an all-female patrol team at the Dongning Forestry And Grassland Bureau in Heilongjiang province of Northeast China.
Snares, often hidden by leaves, dirt and dense undergrowth, are hard enough to spot on forest floors, but even especially so where Qiu Shi works. During winter when temperatures can drop below -20℃, she and her teammates are often left to trudge through knee-deep snow – without knowing what might lie underneath.
“If one steps on a trap, you might get injured, so you need to be very cautious” she said. Rangers are good at uncovering invisible snares but animals are not,” she said.
If trapped by the leg, a snare could break an animal’s bone in one go. If wrapped around its neck, the animal will need to endure a cruel struggle as it tries to free itself. The more it moves, the tighter the snare strangles it, leading it to a slow, excruciating death from the injuries or from thirst and starvation. And even if they’re able to escape, it is likely that they’ll die later due to persisting infections that cause pain or limit their mobility and ability to hunt.
“When it happens, I feel very sad to see a life killed like that,” said Qiu Shi.
Sadly, according to WWF-TRAFFIC’s new briefing Snaring of Big Cats in Mainland Asia half of the snaring cases of tigers were targeted for poaching.
“They say that every body part of the tiger is being traded or is being used in some way or another,” said Merwyn Fernandes, Coordinator, TRAFFIC India.
Whether it’s for traditional medicine, spiritual amulets, fashion or home decor, big cats – as well as various other iconic species like elephants and pangolins – are being endangered because of the illegal wildlife trade - the fourth most lucrative illegal trade in the world, just after the trafficking of narcotics, humans and arms.
“There is a false belief that it can cure some diseases or merely superstition,” Merwyn said. “It has been scientifically proven that they don’t have any additional benefits to this, but then again, the belief is there mainly because tigers represent ferocity, power and strength.”
Much of the wildlife targeted for snaring have been identified as mammals with the highest risk for zoonotic disease transmission to humans. Commercial snaring also threatens the food security of local communities, who can be dependent on wildlife meat for sustenance.
More eyes on watch
“People from outside places don’t know where things are and what can be found in these forests,” said Sapika Magar, a community member who lives in Nirmal Thori village in Parsa, Nepal. “The only way to do it is to involve the communities.”
The Snaring of Big Cats in Mainland Asia research summary report shows that a majority of snaring cases takes place outside protected areas — 65% for tigers, 93% for leopards — where big cats often die in snares set for ungulate species, either to prevent crop-raiding or to poach.
As a member of her local Community-Based Anti Poaching Unit and the chairperson of her local Rapid Response Team, Sapika leads a team of volunteers to mitigate human-wildlife conflict and also help confiscate snares, report incidents of wildlife crime and conduct patrols, working closely with rangers and government authorities in the area.
Her home, Nirmal Thori, sits within the peripheries of the Chitwan-Parsa-Valmiki Tiger Complex, a large forested tract with a shared boundary with India of approximately 100 km, a key area of movement for elephants, tigers and leopards. The complex is part of the Terai Arc Landscape, one of the most populated homes for tigers — both in terms of people and the big cat.
“I became formally involved in 2014, when I joined the Community Based Anti Poaching Unit in Nirmal Thori. At the time, I didn’t know much. I initially joined because I wanted to grow my awareness on conservation as a young person and I wanted to inspire other youth to do the same,” she said.
There are over 400 Community-Based Anti Poaching Units across Nepal, led by teams of youth like Sapika, who work with rangers and park authorities to keep the forest trails safe for wildlife and people. Documenting signs of poaching, dismantling threats on tiger trails and assessing the health of forests, members of these units are key allies in the effort to address snaring.
The trust and support of local communities earned by regular and constructive dialogue with rangers is known to be one of the most critical factors in reducing the likelihood of poaching activities in protected areas.
Unsnarling the snaring crisis
Ultimately, no single solution can solve the snaring crisis. To address the root cause of the illegal wildlife trade, a multi-pronged approach by all stakeholders is the answer.
Firstly, all conservation strategies need to take a people-centred approach, whether it’s providing resources and incentives for local people to lead snare-reduction activities, or raising awareness about the impacts of illegal wildlife trade. Involving indigenous people and local communities in conservation efforts and natural resource governance is critical to long-term success.
Secondly, law enforcement surrounding wildlife protection and anti-snaring laws must be strengthened, whether that’s by setting consistent definitions for snares and traps or by ensuring perpetrators are prosecuted. At the same time, targeted behavioural change campaigns can effectively reduce consumer demand for big cat parts and wildlife meat.
“I removed my first snare in China 30 years ago and today these deadly traps still remain the biggest threat to the survival of Asia’s big cats,” said Stuart Chapman, Lead of WWF’s Tigers Alive Initiative. “We know what needs to be done, the solutions are effective and if sustained, can lead to the rapid recovery of wildlife populations.”
To read WWF-TRAFFIC’s new briefing, Snaring of Big Cats in Mainland Asia, see here.