This Malaysian scientist has been hunting tigers since he was a child

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As a child, scientist Dr. Mark Rayan Darmaraj read books about tigers. In books, tigers, he recalls, are often portrayed as the “king of the jungle”.

“That to me – then and even now – means that tigers are the protectors of the forest and all beings in it,” he says.

For a young Darmaraj, the tiger was not just another charismatic species; by reading all these books and watching all the documentaries he could, he already knew that the animal played a central role in regulating the food chain in the forests.

“I’ve always been drawn to the idea of ​​learning more, and if possible experiencing it first hand, to understand the ecology of the tiger, how the animals respond to human-induced disturbances and, more importantly, what needs to be done to ensure they continue to thrive in their natural habitat,” says the 44-year-old Penangite.

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The first chance he had to observe and track the tiger, Darmaraj “caught it”, as he put it. “That’s when I started researching tigers in the wild in 2004,” he explains in an email interview.

A 27-year-old Darmaraj on the pitch, scoring an elusive and exciting sigh: a tiger paw print. — Photo providedAt that time, he was working as a research assistant for the School of Biological Sciences, Universiti Sains Malaysia, where he was also conducting his master’s research in small mammal ecology and radio telemetry at Gunung Jerai, Kedah.

Today, that same fascination with tigers continues to guide Darmaraj’s career. He is currently the Malaysian National Program Director of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS); prior to that, he led WWF-Malaysia’s tiger conservation program for more than a decade, during which time he was often – and still is – interviewed as the leading expert on the critically endangered Malaysian tiger in the world. ‘extinction.

And although he has also published articles and reviews on other species, Darmaraj is currently the first and only Malaysian to have a doctorate in tiger ecology.

It took four years to complete his PhD research in 2012 at the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology (DICE) at the University of Kent in England.

The effort, which focuses on the conservation of tigers and their prey in Peninsular Malaysia, won him the Zoological Society of London’s Thomas Huxley Award for Best UK PhD Thesis in 2013 as well as the Fiona Award. Alexander in 2014 for being an outstanding DICE PhD student.

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Away from academia, Darmaraj’s pursuit of tigers began in an area of ​​Jeli, Kelantan, where there had been reports of the animal killing humans. He then continued to the Belum-Temenggor forest complex in Perak where he first experienced the harrowing entrapment of a tiger by poachers. The tiger was rescued but later died in captivity.

Darmaraj then sought to better understand how the species is doing in the southern forest complex of Endau-Rompin, Pahang, where WCS Malaysia works.

“My keen interest in learning more about tigers and other wildlife is by no means over and the journey continues after two decades,” he says.

This journey has not been a walk in the park – or in his case, the Malaysian jungle – literally and metaphorically.

The elusive nature of the Malayan tiger, which has mastered the art of hiding in the dense foliage of the country’s tropical rainforest, coupled with disturbance factors affecting the species as well as its habitat and prey, means that it can be quite difficult to study the animal.

But he insists it can still be done with a lot of effort on the ground, funding and resources.

Even more challenging for Darmaraj is the ability to meaningfully interpret the results of field studies and provide science-based recommendations to help conserve tigers.

“From a research perspective, I have to say that what is sorely lacking is deeper knowledge about threats such as poaching and illegal wildlife trade, lack of prey and disease vulnerabilities.

“I think we’ve reached the point where just knowing the number of tigers or where they are is not enough,” he says.

This in itself is an achievement in the study of this stealthy animal.

Preliminary results from the first National Tiger Survey, conducted from 2016 to 2018, found there were fewer than 200 tigers in 75% of the plots surveyed, down from some 3,000 in the 1950s.

In addition to the obstacles mentioned above, poaching and human-tiger conflicts have continued to hamper the conservation of the Malayan tiger, and in fact much of the wildlife in Malaysia, including the sambar deer, one of the main tiger prey.

With around 150 tigers now in the wild, where besides poachers they are threatened by diseases like domestic animal distemper, Darmaraj admits that not a day goes by that he doesn’t feel that we let’s slowly lose these majestic animals.

In 2019, he was quoted in an English daily, warning that the country could lose its tigers in “two or three years” and that the species is on the verge of extinction.

“If we can’t save our tigers, supposedly the most iconic and charismatic of our animals, what does the future hold for Malaysia’s other wildlife?

“Doesn’t that thought sadden or bother you as a Malaysian?” Is there still hope?

“It’s a tough pill to swallow. But if we ever had a chance to save them before it was too late, it is now, when strategic intervention is needed,” he says.

The image of 2020 that gave scientists hope: the tigress with one of her three cubs caught in a camera trap in Perak.  — WWF-MalaysiaThe image of 2020 that gave scientists hope: the tigress with one of her three cubs caught in a camera trap in Perak. — WWF-Malaysia

Recent initiatives announced by the Malaysian government have raised hopes in Darmaraj – such as the time camera traps set up by WWF-Malaysia in Begum-Temenggor captured images of a tigress with three cubs in 2020.

Next, Darmaraj wrote a “Message of Hope” that efforts to stabilize the species’ population were finally beginning to bear fruit.

Public attitudes, he observes, have also begun to change.

“My biggest hurdle in the past has been to first spread knowledge about tigers to the general public and convince politicians and decision-makers to save the tigers and the forest.

“I think we have reached an intermediate stage for both, where the man in the street knows that we have wild tigers and that it is important to save them, while government initiatives such as the training of the Tiger Task Force led by the highest political will seems to give some hope.

Darmaraj cites initiatives such as the fight against poaching Operasi Bersepadu Khazanah, the formation of the national tiger conservation task force chaired by the Prime Minister, as well as the creation of a wildlife crime office under the the police as indications that Malaysia is heading in the right direction.

He hopes the National Tiger Task Force, in particular, will be a game changer.

“It is chaired by the highest political position in the country and has representation from state governments who decide on land issues.

“The question now is whether the new initiatives will take a ‘business as usual’ approach or whether those leading them will work vigorously to fill the gaps by breaking the chain of illegal wildlife trade, curbing poaching, preventing forest conversion. [from reserved to development status, which means allowing logging and plantations]providing safe passage for wildlife movement, increasing large prey numbers and minimizing disease vulnerabilities?

“My sincere hope is that we will succeed in saving the king of the Malaysian jungle for future generations to discover, cherish and be proud of in our country.”


StarLifestyle will publish a series of articles on Malayan tiger conservation in conjunction with the Year of the Tiger 2022. Join us as we report on the race to save this magnificent animal that sits on the national ridge from extinction. from Malaysia. Share your thoughts on the effort at [email protected]

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