Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Sniffer dogs chase tigers in Cambodia's jungles (Feature)
via CAAI News Media

By Christiane Oelrich
Feb 17, 2010

Sen Monorom, Cambodia - Labrador mongrels Sadie and Scooby leap through the thick undergrowth of Cambodia's jungle, chasing their prey.

Finally, success. Scooby barks excitedly and marks his target. An exceptionally big and smelly pile of tiger droppings.

The two dogs have been trained in the US to hunt down the big cats' traces in Cambodia's huge tropical forest. They were hired, together with their handlers, by the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF).

The droppings are to help biologists determine how many tigers and leopards are still left in this wilderness region.

Environmentalists from across the globe have started a campaign to save the great cats from extinction, timed to coincide with the start of the Chinese Year of the Tiger.

Only about 3,200 tigers are believed to roam the jungles worldwide - down from more than 100,000 a century ago - a trend the activists hope to start reversing in Cambodia's forest nature reserves.

'This region has huge potential,' says Nick Cox, head of WWF's tiger programme in South-East Asia. 'The tropical forests are still intact, and if they are properly protected and there are enough prey animals, they are perfect tiger territory.'

'We want to bring tiger numbers back to the level from 50 years ago,' he says.

The 540,000-square-kilometre forest area - which is almost the size of France - ranges from Laos to north-eastern Cambodia and neighbouring Vietnam.

In the thick undergrowth, tigers can stalk their prey without being seen, creating perfect conditions for the big cats.

Indochina's colonial masters, the French, drastically reduced the wildlife in the region, as did the subsequent civil wars and Cambodia's Khmer Rouge regime.

But what almost killed off the tigers was the insatiable demand from the market for traditional Chinese medicine, boosted by the long-disproved belief that tiger parts increase a man's sexual potency.

A dead tiger can earn a poacher up to 14,000 dollars.

Lean Kha says he killed 14 tigers in his poaching career. Now, he is a gamekeeper and hunts poachers.

'I know that it was a mistake,' he says. 'I have done much damage, and Buddhism demands that I make amends.'

For the past five years, patrols in the nature reserve have been stepped up. 'We have reduced the number of poachers and illegal loggers, by 95 per cent,' says nature reserve chief Sopheak Keo.

'Our gamekeepers only rarely find sawdust or animal innards, which hint at illegal goings-on.' Twenty poachers and loggers are imprisoned right now, he says.

Tigers living in their natural habitats are the best guarantee for an intact ecosystem, environmentalists argue. They want to convince governments that tigers are more valuable alive then dead.

A good tiger population in the wild can bring in a steady stream of safari tourists, they say, leading to governments preserving their forests and stopping them being turned into plantations.

'Forests conserve water resources, and tigers live near waterholes,' says US biologist Eric Dinerman. 'If governments protect their forests as tiger habitats, they also protect the water resources for millions of people.'

However, raising tiger numbers is not easy.

Releasing tigers bred in captivity is risky as they might introduce diseases. Also, for a forest to support a tiger population, there has to be enough prey. A grown tiger needs about 50 prey animals per year, says Omaliss Keo, an ecologist with Cambodia's forest authority.

'We need enough prey animals, then the forest could sustain two to three tigers per 100 square kilometres,' he says.

Some 350 tigers are believed to live in the forest area covering parts of Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, says Omaliss Keo. There are probably 30 of them in Cambodia.

Former poacher Lean Kha thinks there may be more. Two months ago, he again found scratch marks on the forest floor.

This is where Scooby and Sadie come in. The poo sniffers and their handlers have set up camp at the Mereuch Ranger station.

Every find is awarded with games, while helpers measure the excrement heap and take samples. 'Every day we find 10 to 15,' dog handler Elizabeth Seely says. But only the lab can finally determine if the sample is from a tiger or leopard.

'We think that we found four tiger-heaps in the past eight weeks,' she says.

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