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Thailand the great hope in saving the tiger

THE PLANNING for a genetics regional database for wild cats in Thailand has begun in hopes of rescuing wild breeding tiger populations in the region - but serious law enforcement is still necessary to save the endangered animals, says the project's executive officer Panthera Alan Rabinowitz.

The genetics lab, if successful, could mark Thailand as a regional hub for tiger conservation - allowing for scientists to study and find ways in preserving the big cats.

Currently USAID, the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), the First Secretary from the US Embassy, and Chulalongkorn University have all expressed an interest in the project. Should everything run smoothly, lab setups and the training of personnel may begin early in 2015 and are expected to run 3-5 years in Thailand and 10 years in the entire region.

Tigers in Thailand are crucial because the Kingdom has the last known breeding population of the Indo-Chinese tigers in the region.

Only some 3,000 wild tigers are left in the world, of which around 200 are located in Thailand. Despite increased efforts to conserve these big cats by local governments, poachers who hunt the animals for Chinese medicinal purposes or for profit are still destroying the species faster than they can breed.

The lab will help Thailand understand its tiger population. This includes understanding both the genetics and the population structure so that related tigers aren't released to breed together says Salisa Rabinowitz, associate director at the American Museum of Natural History.

"Thailand is ready [to become a regional hub while] other countries in Southeast Asia are not," added Salisa Rabinowitz. According to the geneticist, what makes Thailand ready to become a regional hub compared to economically strong countries such as Singapore, Malaysia or even South Korea is that Thailand has both the wildlife and it is a non-commercial molecular lab, which means that data can be safeguarded.

But not only will a genetics regional database be essential for tiger conservation, harsher law enforcement by authorities is needed too. "We have come to realise [that]what needs the strongest focus [in order to conserve tigers],is more than good science, it is law enforcement - serious law enforcement," Alan Rabinowitz said.

"True law enforcement people, [such as] the police and soldiers should be especially trained to enter forests and to take part in some of this locking up of these forests," he said. "If governments would take this seriously, as serious as they take crime in the city, and these areas become better locked up, [there will be improvement.]" he said.

Reportedly, many people involved in killing these tigers can be traced back to larger rings of criminals also involved with child slavery, drugs and the selling of arms. The overlap has resulted in an increased cooperation between local authorities and the international wildlife community.

"Whatever is left here, is not just another tiger population, it's a crucial tiger population. Right now, while there are still some tigers left in other countries, we're not able to document any breeding population of tigers right now in Laos, in Cambodia, in Vietnam or in China," Alan Rabinowitz said.

Despite the critical tiger situation, Rabinowtiz remains optimistic because the attitudes of people are changing and there are habitats still available for these tigers to return. "I'm really hoping that in the next decade Thailand becomes the shining star, a model for wildlife conservation in the entire Southeast Asian region and the regional hub for training, reintroduction, for genetic work for all of Southeast Asia," he added.


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