Think you’ve got a tough job? Here we speak with a man whose brief is to help double the global wild tiger population by 2022. Halfway into the initiative, Mike Baltzer updates us on the progress, and tells us how wildlife spotting in Singapore can be surprisingly better than expected.
After dramatic scenes emerged of officers raiding Thailand’s infamous Tiger Temple earlier this year, the deplorable living conditions of its captive bred tigers drew widespread condemnation, along with the whole questionable practice of tiger farming. The incident also called attention to the dramatic drop in global wild tiger numbers over the past 100 years, and in particular the spectacular collapse of populations in Southeast Asia – largely driven by consumer demand for traditional medicine derived from tiger parts.
Based in Singapore, Mike Baltzer is leader of the WWF’s Tigers Alive Initiative. He moved here from Kuala Lumpur last year and, together with his regional team and global network, coordinates the WWF’s efforts on the ground – and also at a policy level with government.
It’s obvious that a positive outlook for tigers hinges on governments showing strong initiative. “We’re not seeing the changes in numbers in some places such as Indonesia and Malaysia where we see less commitment,” says Mike. Sumatra is the last bastion of tigers in Indonesia, but, as in other areas of Southeast Asia, the growing economy is fuelling road construction, infrastructure development, urbanisation and agricultural expansion. This competition for land is reducing forests and tiger habitats. “We’ve captured images of a tiger looking into one of our camera traps and the following day a bulldozer going through the area,” says Mike. “The same tiger returns to the camera a few days later, but there’s no forest. The change is very, very rapid in Sumatra.”
Poaching is the number one threat to tigers and Mike says a tiger isn’t completely safe anywhere. Illegal hunting and selling is driven by consumer demand, largely from China, but also Laos, Vietnam and Malaysia. Commercial trade inwild caught tigers and breeding is illegal according to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Despite this, every part of a tiger is in demand: skin for display, and bones, meat and claws for traditional medicine and luxury goods as status symbols. Tiger wine made from bones and sold as a health tonic is a non-traditional product that has fuelled increased demand in the past few decades.
Tiger farms complicate the issue. Many operate as tourist attractions, as in the case of the aforementioned Tiger Temple outside Bangkok, but are generally perceived as a front for illegal breeding, smuggling and the sale of parts. There are international calls for the closure of similar operations in Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and particularly China.
While it’s unlikely tigers will ever appear in Singapore again, British-born Mike still gets excited when discussing wildlife sighting opportunities in Singapore. Having worked and lived in Malaysia, Laos and Vietnam, he is genuinely amazed to sight hornbills and cockatoos from his office window on Alexandra Road – not to mention a wild boar outside his condo. He has also started looking for otters in Bishan Park, and he sends photos of any snake sightings to colleagues. “I’ve seen things in Singapore that I could only dream of seeing in a regular city environment,” says Mike, who lives here with his wife and daughter.
Mike spends much of his time working with governments of Tiger Range Countries (TRCs) – countries where tigers still roam free – and he has hopes that planning will pave the way for animals and humans to live together more cohesively in the future. He travels to India to see tigers as often as possible. “It only takes a day back in the forest to regenerate the energy.”
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