Tiger Park Uproar Cites The Lizard King

A week ago Penang Chief Minister Lim proposed creating a tiger park on the Malaysian island to promote “eco-tourism.” Tiger parks already exist in Thailand, Vietnam and China, where tourists can see dozens and dozens of tigers performing circus tricks, but many of these parks can also operate as black market front operations.  Tiger parks were originally created in many cases to supply tiger parts, skins and bones to the Chinese market, but in 1993 China outlawed commercial tiger trade (and gradually enforced it).  As a result some tiger parks transformed themselves into sham tourist attractions which behind the scenes supply tiger parts to the black market.  

Economic stripes:  Tiger parks often house hundreds of tigers while only displaying a few dozen.  For example, during my recent visit to Sriracha Tiger Farm in Thailand I found roughly 40 tigers on display despite the fact that the farm owns more than 400.  The others, I was told, are not for the public to see.  Sriracha boasts over 10,000 crocodiles, which it legally sells to the meat and leather trade.  (I had croc kebabs at the farm’s restaurant).  Commercializing crocs is legal in Thailand, selling tigers is illegal and-though the animals are kept on commercial scale-Sriracha denies selling them for parts.  (Tigers and Crocs are treated differently in part because it is so expensive to raise a tiger to adulthood that everyone knows that if tiger meat, etc. were legalized the first tigers to go would be from the wild. )  There is only one reason most parks have so many tigers–to kill them for the black market.  Now Penang is considering opening a tiger park.  According to Malaysia’s newspaper, The Star , The Lizard King offers insight on the idea….

Uproar over tiger park plan

The claws are out against Penang’s tiger park idea as it is unsuitable for the urban island and infringes the spirit of tiger conservation efforts.

THE response has been ferocious. Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng’s proposed plan to create a tiger park on 40ha of hilly terrain in Relau has been slammed by all and sundry.

With the fluster it has created among environmental organisations, including the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and locals, the Penang government should perhaps abide by the old Chinese saying: There can only be one tiger on one hill.

The hill here, of course, is the constituency of Bukit Gelugor. As for the tiger it can only mean Karpal Singh, “The Tiger of Jelutong”, although current MP Jeff Ooi, who has denied he is stepping down as the CM’s chief of staff, is also reputed to be “fierce” in discharging his duties.

I suppose one cannot fault the youthful chief minister for trying hard to bring back the “wow” factor to the island’s jaded tourism industry. But this is a case of biting off more than he can chew.

The plan is indeed ill-conceived. By no stretch of the imagination can such a park be considered an eco-tourism project. Surely, the CM cannot equate it to Taman Negara, Endau-Rompin or the Belum Forest.

To be fair, he has said that the state government will only go ahead with the plan after considering views from non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the people of the state, in line with its Competency, Accountability and Transparency (CAT) principle. But one tends to wonder about his obsession with cats, though.

Wildlife conservationists are aghast at the idea because it contravenes the spirit of the National Tiger Action Plan aimed at protecting the Malayan tiger (Panthera tigris jacksoni / Panthera tigris malayensis) in the wild.

Previously regarded the same species as the Indo-Chinese tiger – Panthera tigris corbetti – the Malayan tiger was recognised as a new sub-species after extensive DNA studies in 2004.

It was classified Panthera tigris jacksoni, in honour of Peter Jackson, the former head of the cat specialist group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) who spent four decades in tiger conservation work.

However, when Malaysian authorities insisted that the name should also reflect the place it is located, the alternate name of Panthera tigris malayensis was accepted, although it is used only within the country.

Current estimates place the big cat population at around 500 and the plan’s target is to boost the number to at least 1,000 by 2020.

The Department of Wildlife and National Parks and the Malaysian Conservation Alliance for Tigers (MyCat) – a partnership of the Malaysian Nature Society, Traffic (the international wildlife trade monitoring network) Southeast Asia, the Wildlife Conservation Society and WWF — are jointly implementing the plan.

MyCat was set up in September 2003 in response to the various challenges to tiger conservation that needed to be resolved in an integrated manner.

Setting up a tiger park in a densely-populated and largely urban island certainly flies in the face of what the action plan is all about, especially when elsewhere in the developed world, debates are raging over whether such parks and zoos are even ethical.

Influential groups against animal parks and zoos, including the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta), which uses wacky and outrageous means to highlight its cause, describe them as “pitiful prisons” providing meaningless amusement to humans.

Peta says such places teach children that it is acceptable to interfere with animals and keep them locked up in places where they can only be bored, cramped and deprived and away from their natural habitats.

On the opposite end, defenders of well-managed zoos and parks in the West feel they that they play a role in wildlife education, research and the preservation of the world’s endangered species.

As noted by MyCat in its statement denouncing the tiger park plan, Malaysia already has more than 40 zoos, and monitoring them has become a huge task for the authorities.

Several Malaysian zoos are poorly managed and a few have either been linked to the illegal wildlife trade or hauled up for possession of illegally acquired endangered species on numerous occasions.

Let’s not also forget that Malaysia gained much infamy through wildlife trafficker Anson Wong, who was arrested in Mexico in 1998. He was extradited to the US three years later where he was charged and sentenced to 71 months’ jail.

Wong’s capture is part of the recently launched book The Lizard King, written by Bryan Christy on the wildlife smuggling syndicate run by Mike Van Nostrand.

In the book, Wong is dubbed the “Pablo Escobar of wildlife trafficking.”

Conservationists and wildlife experts have also seen enough horror examples of tiger parks in China and Thailand to harbour copius doubts over the Penang plan.

The fact that it would be a privatised project makes it all the more risky, especially in these days of economic uncertainties.


  • Associate Editor M. Veera Pandiyan wishes to share this Chinese proverb: A tiger cannot beat a crowd of monkeys.
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