How Feasible is the India-Cambodia Tiger Trade Idea?

Cambodia has confessed to not having the money for the cost involved, estimated to be $20-50 million, in its national budget.

In the recently concluded third Asia Ministerial Conference on Tiger Conservation, India showed a readiness to help non-tiger countries develop tiger habitats by giving its own tigers to other countries – countries where they are on the brink of extinction or are already extinct. During the conference, the Union Minister for Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MOEFCC) Prakash Javadekar said, “We have tigers, they have money.” How feasible is this idea?

Cambodia, a country with a once-thriving tiger population, is now faced with a situation where the tigers are considered to be ‘functionally extinct’ as there is no current record of breeding tigers there. The last recorded sighting was in the Mondulkiri Protected Forest in 2007. In March this year, the country passed a Tiger Action Plan and its Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) approved it. The plan recommends tiger reintroductions based on best practices developed from previous successful attempts within India. The secretary of state of the MAFF, Sokhun T.Y., had said on April 20 that they were in talks for getting six female and two male tigers from India to be released into the Mondulkiri forest. Though the talks are claimed to be in the initial stages, Javadekar had already expressed India’s readiness to give tigers to the global community in January 2015, following an announcement of a tiger census in 2014.

Equating the issue with a trade deal (by saying that “they have the money and we have the tigers”) may not be the best stance for India while tackling this environmentally sensitive issue. Moreover, Cambodia has confessed to not having the money for the cost involved, estimated to be $20-50 million, in its national budget. Keo Ormaliss, director of the wildlife and biodiversity department within the Cambodian government, had told The Cambodia Daily that the ministry hoped to fund the plan through donations as the money wouldn’t come from the national budget.

A World Wildlife Fund (WWF) report released earlier this year had lauded India’s efforts at reintroducing tigers into the Panna Tiger Reserve (in northern Madhya Pradesh), where the tiger population had been fully exhausted as a result of poaching in 2006. Four female and three male tigers had been introduced here between 2008 and 2014, resulting in the current population of 32 tigers, according to the report.

Ullas Karanth, a leading tiger expert, had said that it would be a serious misadventure on India’s part and that in the past four decades India has seen dozens of such ill-fated experiments costing crores of rupees – Panna being the sole exception. He also said that WWF and the Global Tiger Forum are promoting the idea based on little real science or study.

In its report, the WWF cited a 2015 study that says all mainland tigers are genetically and morphologically similar and belong to the same subspecies, further justifying the translocation of tigers from India to Cambodia. However, the study itself was termed controversial by the scientific community due to an oversimplified method of classifying the species. Tigers that are surviving in the wild are broadly classified into six subspecies: Siberian, Bengal, South China, Sumatran, Indochinese and Malayan. However, the study whittled this down to just two subspecies, the Sunda, comprising the Sumatran tiger and the extinct Javan and Bali tigers, and the continental tigers, which includes the other species.

The findings of the study would have theoretically eased tiger-conservation efforts, as translocation and reintroduction become more doable without having to worry about species differences. However, its viability remains to be seen. The study also makes the many tigers born in zoos to various subspecies eligible for breeding and rewilding.

Some feasibility studies have made the availability of prey – banteng, sambar and the red muntjac – a prerequisite for reintroducing tigers in the eastern plains of Cambodia. However, researchers have mentioned that the prey density in these areas has been much lower compared to ecologically similar sites in other parts of South Asia. Poaching remains the main threat to tiger conservation and the Cambodian administration has been lax in dealing with it. Adequate measures need to be taken in this direction before considering reintroduction.

Moreover, Prakash Javadekar has said that India was committed to the principles of ‘restoration, reintroduction and rehabilitation’ towards doubling the world’s tiger numbers by 2020 from the current 3,890. The MOEFCC needs to further this commitment by thinking  twice before clearing projects that will affect tiger habitats. For example, the Ken-Betwa river link will submerge about 41 km square of the already restricted tiger habitat in the Panna reserve. Though the MOEFCC claims that it will do a proper risk assessment before reintroduction, it should take a stringent look at factors like the availability of prey and the Cambodian government’s support for the project before translocating the precious creatures.