Selangor Journal
Picture for illustration purposes only.

Pak Belang: Our pride, identity and failure


By Muhaimin Merican

If you asked anyone to name an example of Malaysian wildlife, one of their first choices would probably be our pride and national symbol, the Malayan tiger. Affectionately dubbed ‘Pak Belang’ by the locals, which roughly translates to ‘Mr. Stripes’, the Malayan tiger is a ubiquitous icon for our great nation.

Known as harimau belang in Malay, tigers are often portrayed as symbols of bravery and the epitome of regalness. They are featured everywhere, from the national coat of arms to the logo of Proton, our national car. Our Malaysian Bank, or Maybank, also adopted the beloved face of Pak Belang for their logo. In addition to that, our nation’s football team is also affectionately referred to as ‘Harimau Malaya’, and their matches on the field have proved them to have spirit that is as tough and relentless as that of our tigers. Moreover, in 2017, the tiger was chosen to be the mascot when Malaysia played host to the 2017 SEA Games.

Our folklore and mystic beliefs are full of stories about Pak Belang. There is also a variation or form of the Malay art of self-defence, called Silat Harimau, which is inspired by the tiger’s natural movements for its self-defence moves.

It can be said without a doubt that Malaysians love their Pak Belang. We use every single opportunity to highlight our tigers on the world stage. However, as a nation, are we doing enough to protect them from extinction? Do we really feel the pride and joy for our tigers, or is our love only so superficial that we are willing to allow poachers to drive our beloved national symbol to the point of extinction?


Malayan tigers: a subspecies

Up until 2004, there was no Malayan tiger. Our breed of tigers were simply classified as the Indochinese Tiger, Panthera tigris corbetti. Then, with DNA testing, it was proven that our tigers were a separate subspecies. A scientific name was coined, Panthera tigris jacksoni, to classify our tigers as a separate subspecies.
The Malayan tiger’s orange fur, with black striping and white face and undersides, gives the animal its unmistakable appearance.

Male Malayan tigers average approximately 2 to 2.5 meters in length, with the females generally being much smaller. The weight of the Malayan tiger may vary between 78 kilogrammes and 150 kilogrammes, depending on the sex of the animal.
The diet of Malayan tigers includes deer, wild boar, gaur, tapir, sun bear, and even elephants.

The Malayan tiger can only be found in the jungles of Peninsular Malaysia and Southern Thailand. While other tiger species prefer densely forested areas, Malayan tigers are usually more content with open woodland. This could be due to the abundance of prey in the open forest. However, due to the rapid deforestation of our jungles, Malayan tigers have been venturing into agricultural areas, and this has caused conflict between them and humans.


Malayan tigers today

Today, it is estimated that there are about 250 Malayan tigers left in the wild, and they are estimated to go extinct within 10 years if this pattern continues, according to Water, Land and Natural Resources Minister, Dr. Xavier Jayakumar.
While thousands of tigers once roamed throughout the dense, forested interior of the Malaysian peninsula, they are now mainly confined to three protected areas: Belum-Temengor in the north, Taman Negara in the centre and Endau-Rompin in the south.

Forested corridors, which had once been used by tigers to move between major jungles, have also been destroyed. Another factor that has helped poachers to reach once-inaccessible areas is logging roads.

In July 2018, six Vietnamese poachers, believed to be part of a network targeting tigers, were arrested in a raid by the Department of Wildlife and National Parks in Pahang. The presence of foreign poachers in our forests shows the urgent need for Malaysia to step up wildlife protection efforts.

Along with degradation of the physical environment, poachers continuously hunt these tigers for their pelts and body parts. Traditional Chinese and Vietnamese medicine relies heavily on tigers, and it is now thought that organized crime is behind local poaching, making the problem even more difficult to eliminate. Villagers also eat tiger meat, perhaps in the mistaken notion that they will absorb some of the tiger’s power by eating the animal’s flesh.


Saving Pak Belang

We have now reached a critical point with our tigers. If we do not act now to save our tigers, we will never get the chance again. The World Wildlife Foundation believes that there is still a chance for us to save our national animal, and the answer is: Nepal.

Nepal recently announced its success in doubling tiger numbers. It also achieved 365 days of zero poaching for rhinos, elephants and tigers in 2013 and 2014. This was possible due to collaborative and focused efforts between enforcement agencies and regulatory bodies such as the National Tiger Conservation Committee and the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau, under the Nepal police force. These bodies were set up to address poaching and illegal wildlife trade from an enforcement perspective. Nepal’s success has given other tiger range countries a clear direction.

In addition to a greater presence of authorities in our jungles, some NGOs have been working with prosecutors and investigative personnel in order to stop poaching with harsher punishments.

Fines for wildlife crime were increased under the previous government—to a maximum of RM 100,000 and/or a three-year prison term.


An uncertain future

At this point, we are faced with a daunting task to see how far we will go to save our one and only national animal. We could follow the footsteps of countries like India and Nepal, who, through political will, have rehabilitated the numbers of their tigers. If Nepal and India, nations struggling with social issues and strife, can manage to save their tigers and have their numbers bounce back tremendously through military intervention, Malaysia should not have a reason to allow our Pak Belang to be driven to extinction. It is no longer merely a question of our morality to save our Malayan tigers, it has become a question of our national identity, and it is our responsibility to protect them.

The next generation may not know of Malayan tigers save for pictures of them and through geography and history lessons. We have our tigers on our national coat of arms, and we name our football team after them. If we lose our Malayan tigers, what will happen to our pride and identity? Do we just replace our national animal with other animals and wait for them to become extinct too, due to our recklessness and inability to act?

Will we suffer the fate of countries such as the Maldives and Moldova, whose national animals, the Dodo and Aurochs respectively, have gone extinct? Do we want to keep allowing poachers to rob us of our national symbol? Or do we actually care and take enough pride in our tigers to actively take steps and protect them.

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