Roar deal: Tigers officially extinct in Cambodia, but government plans to bring big cats back from the dead

Conservationists in Cambodia have conceded that tigers are ‘functionally extinct’ in the country. The kingdom’s forests were once patrolled by a healthy numbers of magnificent Indochinese tigers, but World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) this week reported that poaching has wiped the Cambodian population out completely, with the big cats and their prey species both falling victim to illegal hunting.

The last wild tiger seen in Cambodia was caught on a camera trap nine years ago, in the eastern Mondulkiri province, and the WWF released a statement on Wednesday saying: ‘Today, there are no longer any breeding populations of tigers left in Cambodia, and they are therefore considered functionally extinct.’

That’s the bad news. The good news is that conservationists and the Cambodian government have hatched a bold plan to reintroduce the tiger back into the dry forests, with a section of dedicated land being set aside in Mondulkiri province for the big cats, complete with round-the-clock protection against poachers.

The idea involves sourcing several wild animals from neighbouring countries, and talks have already begun with India, Thailand and Malaysia. ‘We want two male tigers and five to six females tigers for the start,’ Keo Omaliss, director of the department of wildlife and biodiversity at the Forestry Administration, told the press.

The increasingly rare Indochinese tiger is one of six surviving species of Panthera tigris
The increasingly rare Indochinese tiger is one of six surviving species of Panthera tigris

With wild numbers dropping as low as 202-352 total across its natural range in in Southeast Asia, the Indochinese tiger, a sub-species of the biggest cat on the planet, has been wobbling on the edge of becoming officially Critically Endangered for some years. In 2015 there was signs of a comeback, with estimates being revised up to 600 or more individuals believed to be on the prowl in the wild—although no breeding pairs are thought to survive in Cambodia, Laos or China, where the last known Indochinese tiger was killed and eaten by a Yunnan-province villager in 2009.

Tigers are in serious trouble right across Asia, with deforestation and poaching taking a terrible toll on wild populations. The International Union for Conservation of Nature recently estimated that global numbers had been reduced to just 2,154.

In 2010, the 13 countries where the main species of the regal creature survives—Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Russia, Thailand and Vietnam—initiated a scheme to rescue the species. Branded Tx2, the project aims to double the number of wild tigers by 2022, the next Chinese year of the tiger. Representatives of these countries, the tiger’s last places of refuge, will meet in Delhi, India, next week, to discus how they can pull the Asian tiger back from the brink of the abyss.