Tiger conservation: there is a way, but is there a will?

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An Indochinese tiger, Mi, carries a cub at the Hanoi Zoo June 22, 2011. Mi, the first tiger to be born and bred at the zoo, gave birth to four cubs in April 2011.

The killing of the last Javan rhino in Cat Tien National Park, Vietnam's implication in the slaughter of South Africa's rhinos, and the scientific conclusion that Vietnam has no remaining viable tiger populations have contributed to a mood of doom and gloom among conservationists. 

The fact is that government invariably prioritizes economic development over biodiversity conservation, and until that changes no amount of international support (or shame) will make a difference. 

Paradoxically, that is also a source of hope. If the government is motivated to manage its protected areas better, it has the capacity to do so. 

There are no major technical or financial barriers to improving protected area management and wildlife conservation. Vietnam retains large of areas of habitat that if properly protected could be used to reintroduce species. 

And its spending on protected areas on a per unit area basis is among the highest in Asia. The problem is that the money goes to infrastructure, not conservation. 

And the incentives are sometimes perverse: for instance, a park director will be fired if a forest fire breaks out.

It has proven hard to convince government that it is worth the short-term political costs of strictly enforcing its own wildlife protection laws.

In fact, it was doubt about whether a viable rhino population existed that stopped the provincial government from going ahead with a village relocation plan in Cat Tien. As it turned out, the province was right. After all, why risk conflict with villagers if there's nothing to save? 

This point is crucial because not only has the poor performance of Vietnam's 10,000 rangers been exhaustively documented, but the dominant message is that there's nothing left for them to protect anyway. Under these circumstances, why should the government bother?

What would it take to inspire the government to take action? What would an appropriate goal, one that is both technically feasible and capable of capturing the public imagination, look like? 

One option would be to fence off Yok Don National Park and transfer Vietnam's 112 captive tigers (as of March 2012), currently housed in a mix of 11 government and privately managed facilities, to semi-wild enclosures inside the park. 

Located in Dak Lak Province and covering 115,000 hectares, Yok Don lies on the border with Cambodia where the government is considering re-introducing tigers into Mondulkiri Protected Forest. 

Together, Yok Don and Mondulkiri cover 300,000 hectares of prime tiger habitat that within 20 years could form the world's most productive tiger reserve. 

The 112 captive tigers are mix of three different sub-species: Indochinese, Bengal, and Amur; there are no pure-bred Indochinese tigers, the sub-species native to Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. 

Based on an analysis of their DNA, mature males and females would need to be selected to "breed in" this sub-species. This is a standard genetic management approach used in zoos and breeding centers worldwide. 

The offspring of this founder population would be removed from their mothers at about one year of age and moved to separate enclosures where they would start hunting live prey and have no contact with humans. 

This "re-wilding" approach has been successfully tested in South Africa with Southern China tigers that will soon be returned to a strictly protected forest in China.

The offspring of the offspring would have been born in the wild and would be regarded as 100 percent wild. Since tigers reach maturity at five years of age and a female gives birth to two cubs every two years, the number of wild tigers could increase rapidly. 

Abundant tigers, gaurs, bantengs, and other charismatic wildlife could, as India has shown, serve as the basis of a high-end tiger viewing industry.

The open forest and the use of semi-wild enclosures would almost guarantee the chance of seeing tigers.  Currently, there is no realistic chance of visitors to Yok Don seeing any of these animals.

A limiting factor on the wild tiger population is likely to be the prey base. WWF surveys show that in Cambodia the prey base, comprising primarily of deer and wild pigs, is one-sixth the density of India's. 

In Vietnam, prey is likely to be even thinner on the ground. The risk therefore is that wild tigers would starve to death. The solution is to, first, strictly protect the existing prey base, farm them in enclosures inside the park, and possibly import banteng from Australia.

Another constraint is weak law enforcement.  Given intense hunting pressure (and the risks of tiger attacks on surrounding villages), a fence would have to be built around Yok Don, which has a perimeter (excluding the international border with Cambodia) of about 150 km.  Ideally, the fenced area would be larger than Yok Don to include additional tiger habitat. 

At $10,000 per kilometer, the fence, which would need to be elephant-proof, would cost about $1.5 million excluding labor. Since the border army is already present, it might make sense for the army to build the fence and patrol it.

If Yok Don isn't possible, another option is Chu Prong in Gia Lai Province, which covers 50,000 hectares.  Like Yok Don, it lies on the Cambodian border. The advantage of Chu Prong is that is has more permanent water, which would support a greater density of prey and hence tigers, and a greater diversity of habitat types. Because it is not currently a protected area there is no institution or management system in place to reform or remove.

If successful, this project would not only make Vietnam a global leader in tiger reintroduction but also address the sensitive issue of Vietnam's captive tigers. 

In 2006, a campaign led by NGOs and several government departments to confiscate these tigers and prosecute the owners failed after the prime minister publicly defended the owner with the largest number of tigers on the basis that the constitution gives citizens the right and responsibility to conserve nature. 

These tigers remain in a legal limbo with no solution in sight that is acceptable to all parties and offers any conservation benefit.

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