KUALA LUMPUR – The mountain gorillas of Africa had Dian Fossey. The Malayan tigers have Kae Kawanishi.
Kawanishi, 39, may not be as famous as the late Fossey, whose life and work with gorillas in the mountain forests of Rwanda was immortalized in the Hollywood movie “Gorillas in the Mist,” but the Osaka native is equally passionate about the conservation and protection of wildlife, especially tigers.
A renowned tiger expert, Kawanishi braved Malaysia’s unforgiving rain forest with its dense, thorny undergrowth, leeches and snakes to study tigers between November 1998 and August 2001.
Her study site was Taman Negara, a 4,343-sq.-km national park in the north-central part of Malaysia on the Malay Peninsula.
Leading a team of up to 10 Malaysian men, Kawanishi had to climb hills, wade through rivers and endure tropical storms to set up and maintain remote, self-activating cameras equipped with infrared sensors to capture the elusive animals.
Kawanishi had done fieldwork before in India, Russia and Guatemala, but Taman Negara proved the most challenging.
“In India, the longest sampling period for estimating a tiger population at any given time may be three months,” she said.
“In Taman Negara, we didn’t have roads and we didn’t know exactly where the tigers were moving around. We took three months just to lay out all the cameras. In India, biologists can move around in vehicles and check the cameras every day, but on foot in Taman Negara we could check each camera only once a month.”
Inaccessibility is one of the reasons why mainland Southeast Asia’s 2,000 tigers have drawn little study compared with other locations, including on the Indian subcontinent and in Siberia.
The traditional counting of tracks and using radio-collar tracking are also not suited for rain forest tigers as marks are easily wiped away by rain and the thick vegetation smothers radio signals.
But thanks to the new technique of camera-trapping, Kawanishi could pursue what later became the first scientific study of tiger ecology in Malaysia.
Kawanishi, who credits her father for introducing her to the beauty of nature, would not have left her mark on Malayan tigers if it were not for her other love affair — with a Malaysian man.
Their marriage in 1995 brought her to Malaysia for the first time and the country has now become her third home, after Japan and the United States.
While in Malaysia, she offered her expertise to the local wildlife department, which proposed she study tiger ecology using camera traps because she had experience with the technique in studying jaguars and pumas in Guatemala in 1994.
“As I started to search literature, I realized that so little was known of the ecology of rain forest tigers. At that time, it seemed to me that foreign experts were in every tiger nation doing research and conservation except Malaysia,” she said.
Kawanishi’s work there may have given her wide international recognition in her field, but her life’s passion has not been without hardship.
Despite the prominence of personalities such as Fossey and chimpanzee behavior researcher Jane Goodall, the field of wildlife research is still male-dominated.
Kawanishi said she is “unconventional by any women’s standard” and she carries the extra challenge of being a mother, and an Asian one at that.
Her 1998-2001 landmark tiger project started off as a dissertation for her doctorate from the University of Florida.
During those years, Kawanishi said, she was only a part-time mother. When she first entered the Malaysian jungle, her daughter was 2 years old.
She said being away from her family was the hardest thing she had to endure and her own mother frowned on what she was doing.
“In Asian culture especially, this type of mother whose calling goes beyond caring for the family is heavily criticized,” she said. “The fact that I find pleasure in my work made it worse. It would be completely acceptable if I were a man.”
But it was through her work and that of the wildlife department that today Malayan tigers are no longer such a mystery. Much more is also known of what can be done to ensure their survival.
In 2004, a study found that tigers inhabiting the southern part of the Malay Peninsula, including part of southern Thailand, to be genetically distinct from Indochinese tigers found elsewhere in Thailand and in Myanmar, China, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. Malayan tigers thus became the ninth tiger subspecies.
The population of Malayan tigers is thought to have numbered around 3,000 in the early 1950s but dwindled to around 250 by the early 1980s. The subspecies appears to have made a comeback, with recent studies suggesting there could be around 500 in the wild today.
After 34 months in Taman Negara, Kawanishi collected 4,336 photos, but tigers could be seen in only 61. Other animals photographed included elephants, sun bears, porcupines, clouded leopards, wild dogs and panthers.
There were pictures of aborigines and intruders, but her experience in the jungle found no evidence of rampant poaching, a major problem in other tiger areas where the animals are killed for their pelts and for use in traditional medicine.
Her analysis suggested that conservation efforts in the park, which could support around 90 tigers, have been successful. The number is low compared with similar-size forests in India and Nepal, which can each support several hundred, but low density is a characteristic of rain forest tigers.
Kawanishi is hopeful the Malayan tigers can survive for at least another 100 years.
But she is also mindful that already 93 percent of the world’s original tiger habitat has been lost over the last century, and three out of the nine subspecies have become extinct in the past 50 years.
Ironically, despite all her time spent in the jungle, Kawanishi has never seen a Malayan tiger in the wild with her own eyes.
Their elusiveness is like “a ghost or maybe a spirit” she said. “Had it not been for those pictures, I could be dreaming.”
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