Tigers, snares and Malaysia’s Indigenous guardians of the forest

Posted on November, 08 2023

It's early morning and Merapi and his wife, Ayu, are getting their children ready for the day. Teeth are being brushed and food is being prepared.

This sounds like a normal day for most but for Merapi this is just the start. In a few hours he’ll be leading an anti-poaching patrol team deep into the rainforest of Royal Belum State Park, and this is a job that comes with high stakes.

Patrols can last two weeks and it’s dangerous and tough work hiking through the jungle, sleeping in hammocks, being attacked by leeches, crossing rivers all while carrying heavy packs and looking out for poachers.

Why does Merapi and his team risk their lives like this? To protect their home.

Merapi Bin Mat Razi is an Orang Asli, which translates to ‘original people’, who are the Indigenous Peoples of Peninsular Malaysia.

Part of the Jahai ethnic group, his family lives in one of 19 villages in the Belum-Temengor Forest Complex, a 130 million year old rainforest in northern Malaysia. 

Illustrative map that shows the location of the Belum-Temengor Forest Complex in the north of Malaysia. In this forest complex a road divides Royal Belum State Park in the north and Temengor Forest Reserve in the south.

Only Orang Asli are permitted to live within these protected forests.

The Jahai have intimate knowledge of the forest’s ecosystem and many still earn a living from it.

This treed world is infused with ancient myth and meaning, where life and traditions are always rooted in the wilderness.

“I love the forest so much: the wildlife, the herbs, and of course the tigers,” explains Merapi.

As stewards of the land the Jahai know this area better than anyone. The rainforest, its resources and wildlife hold significant value to them but they’re not the only ones who see value in this land.

Many outsiders are interested in the price tag hanging off century-old trees or around the necks of wildlife, and this brings danger to Merapi’s door.

Merapi stands at the base of the Kooi Waterfall, Royal Belum State Park, Malaysia

During 2017 a crisis was declared as snares set by poachers littered the forest floor of Royal Belum State Park.

These traps have decimated wildlife populations here, greatly threatening the country’s national animal: the tiger.

“In 2010, Royal Belum was known to have the highest density of tigers in the country but because of the snaring in 2017 and 2018 we saw a 50-60% reduction of tigers in that small park,” says Christopher Wong, WWF-Malaysia’s Tiger Lead.

Caught in a snare in Royal Belum State Park, Malaysia. This tiger later died as a result of its injuries. 

After decades of decline, there are now estimated to be less than 150 tigers left in the whole country (as of 2023); they're on the brink of becoming nationally extinct. 

This is why in 2018 WWF-Malaysia partnered with a number of the Orang Asli to form Project Stampede: an Indigenous patrol team tasked with scaling the forests of Royal Belum State Park to remove snares, deter poachers and collect data on poaching.

But first, to understand the significance of the partnership between Project Stampede and WWF-Malaysia we need to rewind the clock.

WWF-Malaysia first started partnering with Indigenous communities in the area in 2009 and it was a few years later that Umi, WWF-Malaysia’s Senior Community Engagement & Education Officer, first met Merapi.

“I knew Merapi maybe 10 years ago and the Merapi I knew has a shy personality, usually I did most of the talking. I saw Merapi slowly getting involved in conservation efforts and now we are working in conservation together as a team”, explains Umi.

Building trust and shared values is the foundation for successful long-term conservation partnerships and that’s exactly what Project Stampede is.

“It’s very important to engage with Indigenous Peoples on tiger conservation. We know that the Orang Asli are residing within Belum-Temengor, so they are the key stakeholders for conservation efforts”, continues Umi.

Her warm personality and commitment to the communities she works with is a special combination, for her it’s personal.

“They treat me as family. This is something that I can’t put into words. I’m so grateful. This is a real partnership, where we are learning with each other.”

Umi Rahman photographed in the village of Sungai Tiang, an Orang Asli village located inside Royal Belum State Park, Malaysia

Since it started Project Stampede has been incredibly successful and the teams have reduced the number of active snares in the forest by 98%.

The team have trekked bags upon bags of snares out of the forest to be destroyed. On one occasion Merapi’s team spent two to three days removing over 100 snares from just one area.

But this work is dangerous, as Merapi recalls: “When I first started this job, my family was worried about me.

"The poachers in the area learned about what I was doing, and one day I was visiting Gerik [the nearest major town] and one of them grabbed my shirt, and said something threatening in my ear,” recalls Merapi.

“It is a dangerous job. But I need to continue, it is my duty.”

Merapi holds up a snare that he and his colleagues from Project Stampede have removed from Royal Belum State Park, Malaysia.

Their impact has been felt beyond the removal of snares.

Information they collect on poaching activities in Royal Belum has led to a number of arrests, notably of six foreign poachers by enforcement agencies in September 2019 and members of Project Stampede are now training some state park rangers on standard operating procedures. 

“For me the most important thing we can do is give training, capacity building and provide any support we can. But ultimately, they will and now do lead themselves. This is how it works: the communities living in the landscape have the rights and ability to protect it themselves” explains Wafiy, WWF’s Senior Field Biologist, who has spent years learning the Jahai language and is also the SMART trainer in Belum-Temengor Forest Complex.

Weaving Indigenous knowledge and technology like SMART together has seen the patrol teams go from strength to strength.

SMART enables the patrol teams to log GPS coordinates and images of anything from animal signs to poaching evidence and then upload that information to a shared database.

Teams can log real-time data and have access to previous patrol information which makes their work more effective.

A patrol team walks through the forests of Royal Belum State Park, Malaysia

Today, there are 106 patrol team members across the landscape: 50 in Temengor in the south and 60 in Royal Belum in the north.

These teams consist of the original Project Stampede Indigenous patrol team members and a number of rangers funded under the Biodiversity Protection and Patrolling Programme (BP3) - an initiative by the government to have Malaysian Forest protected.

The threats facing this area needed a long-term solution, not just a quick fix, and Project Stampede was just that.
What’s next?

While gains have been made, progress is fragile as poachers are still very much a threat to tigers and other wildlife across the Belum-Temengor Forest Complex.

But far from these forests in a different environment entirely a legislative progress is being seen.

“We know that the model works in India and Nepal, where national task forces are put in place with a high political figure chairing it. In early 2022 Malaysia established its own Malaysian tiger task force.” says Christopher.

“It started in 2021 and in just one year we’ve seen the penalty raised from 500,000 MYR to 1,000,000 MYR for hunting, possession and trafficking of totally protected species. 

"There have also been budget increases for patrolling and prison time has increased from 10-15 years for wildlife related offences.”

For communities living in tiger landscapes in Malaysia the future is not yet written.

Many Orang Asli are involved in community initiatives led by the government’s Indigenous affairs department or NGOs, in tourism, agroforestry, and some take work outside of their communities in towns and cities.

But for WWF’s community partnerships in Belum-Temengor Forest Complex there are many projects waiting to be explored.

Social landscape mapping projects to better understand the relationship dynamics in communities and how tiger conservation projects can affect them are underway.

It’s critical to understand how communities are changing and adapting and how this affects long-term sustainable tiger conservation projects.

For Merapi though, when asked if he has hopes for the future of tigers in Belum-Temengor, Merapi’s answer is short, instant, and delivered with a wide grin. “Yes.”

There are less than 150 tigers in Malaysia. A collaboration between a team of Orang Asli, WWF-Malaysia and Emmanuel Rondeau (a wildlife photographer) documented high quality images of three tigers in Royal Belum State Park during 2023 in an effort to raise awareness of the plight of the tiger here. Images were recorded on custom built digital camera traps that are owned by Emmanuel.
The future of our Malayan tigers is at stake as their existence is severely threatened by poaching and the illegal wildlife trade, habitat loss due to deforestation and fragmentation, as well as overhunting of the tigers' main prey. Disover more at WWF-Malaysia