Reaching out to save tigers – poachers turn protectors

  • April 2, 2015

Ensuring a safe future for tigers requires a more comprehensive approach than merely fortifying protected areas and limiting poachers access to hunt them. Engaging communities close to tiger habitats helps ensure that local populations understand how intact eco-systems, including all the wildlife that resides in them, are important to their daily lives, writes Tim Redford of TigerTime supported Freeland.

Many people dwelling in or near tiger habitats are in constant fear of tigers and what these large predators may do to them, their children, or their domestic animals.

In tiger range countries such as in Southeast Asia – the hunter has become the hunted and the remaining tigers stay as far away from people as possible. As human populations grow the demand for land means settlers are encroaching into tiger habitats and the forest fragmentation is bringing tigers closer than ever to humans.

To develop a better understanding of the importance of tigers and the role they perform in the eco-system Freeland conducts many types of community engagements. These are designed to change the public’s mindset and to foster support from the very people who may otherwise harm or kill tigers.

Through the monitoring of enforcement actions and poacher arrests it is possible to determine where these poachers originate and focus outreach where it is most needed. One solution which Freeland has been using is a ‘poacher to protector’ approach. Violators are offered a chance to receive vocational training, usually in farming, to steer them away from poaching and towards a legitimate livelihood. Small loans are made available to those who have made a pledge to reform and after training they are guided through small-scale farming enterprises, such as organic vegetable or mushroom farming. One person who received such support and abandoned poaching is Ms. Nuan Muanchan (pictured left). After initially receiving support to start a small mushroom farm she was able to save, buy some land and develop it as a mulberry farm.

Ms. Nuan found out that there is demand for mulberries due to its numerous beneficial health properties and in Thailand the leaves are even used as food for silkworms, which produce the renowned Thai silk. Nuan has just started her mulberry farm and is hoping it will turn into a successful self-pick venture where local Thai tourists can walk through and pick their own fruit. Mulberry plants grow very quickly and if well watered produce the delicious fruit year round, providing a long-term sustainable income. Ms. Nuan was not a tiger poacher, but her activities collecting valuable aloewood was causing forest disturbance and the tiger habitat to shrink.

Since Thailand does not have a social security system there are few choices to generate income to survive. Farm labouring for the healthy is seasonal, poorly paid and often the wages are insufficient to support a family. It is common during times of crisis to borrow money from money-lenders at exorbitant interest rates. The repayments sometimes cannot be met, which further indebts the borrower until such time that they can either default or commit a crime to pay off the debt. Loan-sharks know this and encourage villagers to take up poaching, as sometimes the money-lenders are also middlemen who buy poached products.

These are the most common reasons why villagers decide to engage in poaching. This criminal activity is financially lucrative, but its also very dangerous, takes the poacher away from home and could end up with them getting caught, fined or sent to jail.

Given a choice, most people would prefer to have legal work with an honest income rather than engage in poaching. Poachers willing to change are the people that the Freeland outreach team looks for, engages, supports and guides towards protecting the wild.

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