Tiger's death reflects failure in forest management
Early this month, villagers in tambon Mae Thot of Thoen district in the northern province of Lampang discovered tiger footprints and heard roars.
On Jan 8, they found a tiger suffering from exhaustion hiding in a cassava plantation. The villagers contacted officials from the conservation office under the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP) for assistance.
The tiger was captured using a tranquilliser gun the next afternoon.
Staff from the DNP initially intended to release the animal back into the forest but changed their mind after discovering shotgun wounds on its haunch and other parts of its body.
The tiger was sent to Huay Yang Pan Conservation Centre in Chiang Mai's Hot district to receive medical treatment. The assistance, however, came too late. The tiger was pronounced dead on Jan 17.
Identified as "HKT-178", the 180-kilogramme male tiger was aged around seven years old. It had been tracked by the DNP since 2011.
Saksit Simcharoen, the DNP's wildlife researcher who tracks tigers, said HKT-178 was first captured in the middle of 2011 by a camera trap in Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary -- part of Thailand's western forest complex which is the largest habitat of tigers. HKT-178 is the son of another wild tiger named "Fancy", which has been previously captured by DNP.
HKT-178 appeared again, alone, in a camera trap picture in Mae Wong National Park on the northern border of Huai Kha Khaeng in December 2011, showing that it had started to separate from its mother and seek its own territory when it grows to adulthood.
The camera recorded its last picture in late 2012, still in Mae Wong. The tiger was never seen again until the tragic ending at the cassava plantation in Lampang this month.
Mr Saksit said HKT-178 was likely roaming outside Mae Wong National Park situated between Nakhon Sawan and Kamphaengpetch when it disappeared from the DNP's radar.
"The death of HKT-178 shows the return of a tiger -- a creature that chooses to live in supportive natural habitat," he said.
According to Mr Saksit and his team's research of tigers in Huai Kha Khaeng, male and female tigers roam 200-300 and 60-70 square kilometres respectively.
Tigers require spacious living areas. However, shrinking forest areas and declining food sources are leading to encounters between tigers and humans.
The World Wildlife Fund has reported cases of tigers roaming beyond Huai Kha Kheang and settling in other areas such as Mae Wong and forests in Kanchanaburi.
In another case, a three-year-old male tiger known as "HKT-206M" was shot dead in Kawkareik village in Maynmar's Kayin state last year. It appeared in a camera trap photo with its mother in Huai Kha Khaeng in 2015.
Some experts believe that it crossed the border to seek its own territory and ended up exhausted and hungry.
But HKT-178 was fortunate to gain mercy from local villagers.
Officials are trying to find out why HKT-178 was shot. One theory is that it might have roamed to the far edge of forest into the human habitat in search of suitable territory or to escape hunters. Lampang's Thoen district is around 300 kilometres from the northern border of Huai Kha Kheang.
"We have yet to determine the exact spot where the tiger was shot, and why it had to travel so far," said the DNP's deputy director-general Adisorn Nuchdumrong. "We have yet to establish whether people shot the tiger on purpose or in self-defence."
HKT-178 had not been detected for many years so officials could not locate its whereabouts, making it difficult to determine the location where it had been shot and the person or persons who shot it.
Panudet Kerdmali, secretary-general of the Seub Nakhasathien Foundation, suspects that the tiger may have been shot by a villager trying to protect livestock because the bullet that killed the tiger came from a shotgun.
His theory is based on the fact that the gunman fired a number of shallow spherical pellets that damaged the tiger's skin. A shotgun is not the weapon of choice for professional hunters who try to ensure the tiger's skin is undamaged.
"The latest death reflects a failure in the management of forests and tiger population in Thailand," he said.
"Trees remain in the forest but not creatures which serve as the tigers' food and which enhance the ecosystem."
Last year, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment mulled the idea of releasing tigers from Huai Kha Kheang into Khao Yai National Park to balance the food chain and ecological structure as no tigers -- a hunter at the top of the food chain -- have been detected in Khao Yai for over a decade.
But the idea came under criticism as the animals would not survive in the forest as the tigers' food sources and habitat are not well managed.