A statement by the Kelantan forestry department director yesterday that logging is good for tigers invoked public furore, and there have been subsequent misconceptions and debate on what constitutes good tiger habitat.
The director was quoted as saying the research findings came from a researcher in Sarawak, but his statement has also been linked to a journal paper based on a study conducted almost 20 years ago by WWF-Malaysia in Kelantan itself.
The findings in this paper have subsequently been misinterpreted and erroneously reported on certain web portals.
Being the lead author, I would like to take this opportunity to shed some light on the findings as well as on the biology of tigers itself. It is important for people not to misinterpret and cherry pick lines from this publication, but to instead look at the findings in its entirety to be able to understand the main message of the paper.
First, we need to contextualise what is meant by logging and deforestation, as these are two distinct terms.
Deforestation happens when the entire forest is cleared to make way for a different sort of land-use – typically plantations, development projects or infrastructure. Clear felling is not good for any wildlife including tigers. Period!
Logging in Malaysia generally refers to selectively removing timber from a particular logging concession, which leaves the forest degraded and disturbed, but generally intact as natural forest.
The paper published in 2009 was only the second ever population density estimate of tigers in Malaysia. Back then, not much was known about tiger ecology in Malaysia apart from another study in Taman Negara.
It showed that a selectively logged forest has the potential to harbour a high tiger density.
This study alluded that vegetation regeneration after selective logging could provide more browse material for tiger prey and thereby potentially contribute to a higher tiger density. More importantly, however, the paper clearly states that this hypothesis remains to be investigated further and it is critical to recognise the caveats in interpreting this which is not the case here.
In pristine forests, when trees fall due to natural causes, such as heavy storms, it creates a gap in the canopy and there will be an increase in browse material at the ground level over the short term, which is favoured by herbivores.
This is what you would also expect with selective logging, but at an increased intensity compared to natural tree falls. And so, the director of the Kelantan forestry department correctly pointed out that logging activities do indeed open up the canopy, which causes more ground vegetation to grow due to the increased exposure to sunlight.
However, this does not necessarily mean that it will translate into higher densities of ungulates or tigers, as it is dependent on many other factors. How intensively this is done and whether strict adherence to “reduced impact logging” guidelines to reduce collateral damage of logging is carried out is subject to further scrutiny but would certainly add to the complexity of understanding the impact to wildlife.
Despite numerous studies, the long-term effects of selective logging on wildlife are not clearly understood. This is mainly because of the seemingly poor long-term predictability of individual species’ responses to logging and inextricably linked secondary logging impact, such as increased poaching facilitated by easy access through logging roads.
Unfortunately, the irrevocable point made from this 2009 paper about selectively logged-over forest being important for tiger conservation and the importance of not clear felling or converting natural forest into other land uses, including monoculture plantations, is lost.
Very often patches within production forests have been classified as “poor forest” or “hutan miskin” on the basis of reduced yield, and converted to other land uses such as monoculture timber plantations. It begs the question of sustainability in respect to the context of sustainable forest management. Anyhow, the point was that the journal paper cautioned against such conversion and urged the preservation of selective logged-over natural forest.
Later in the years, my PhD study showed that tigers had a much higher density in a primary forest compared to a logged forest even though they were adjacent to each other.
Tiger prey densities were actually depressed in the logged forest; possibly due to historical hunting activities in the forest reserves, whereas the primary forest was more secure by virtue of being a protected area with limited access and having security presence.
In addition, my PhD research showed that tigers preferred using dense patches of forests both at the ground and canopy level, and this is simply because tigers are ambush predators that rely on adequate cover to make a kill. This, therefore, makes vegetation density an important habitat feature in fine-scale selection of forest patches for tigers.
In such a dynamic forest ecosystem that is faced with various levels of disruption and threats, it is not as easy and straightforward to state that logging can help increase tiger prey and therefore increase tiger numbers.
Ultimately in terms of habitat, forest clearance is by far the bigger threat towards tigers and other wildlife, which results in the total destruction of their habitat.
Over the past 15 years, we have seen the proliferation of large-scale plantations within forest reserves, which has resulted in a vast decrease in tiger habitat as well as fragmentation of the forest into smaller patches.
In view of alternative options such as Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation plus conservation, sustainable management of forests, and enhancement of forest carbon (REDD+), nature-based solutions and carbon financing, our conversation should revolve around these topics to safeguard natural forests as opposed to whether logging is good for tigers.
It would be ideal if the tiger task force chaired by the prime minister can urgently look into the operationalising of such financing to safeguard existing natural forests from being converted, regardless of it being previously logged or being designated as state land.