Only the second known breeding population of Indochinese tigers – one of the most imperilled subspecies of the great striped cat – has been identified in northeastern Thailand. 


The good news comes via a camera-trap survey in the Eastern Forest Complex, aka the Dong Phayayen-Khao Yai Forest Complex, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that comprises one of Thailand's most significant blocks of intact forest. The counter-trafficking group Freeland and the cat conservation organisation Panthera conducted the study in cooperation with Thailand's Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP).

The exciting results have revealed breeding tigers in eastern Thailand for the first time in more than 15 years, according to a news release, as well as the first-ever photos of cubs in the region. The researchers estimate the Eastern Forest Complex might host a density of 0.63 tigers per 100 square kilometres.

"While these data suggest the region supports an exceptionally modest tiger density, on par with some of the most threatened tiger habitats in the world, the results conversely demonstrate the species' remarkable resilience given wildlife poaching and illegal rosewood logging present in the complex," the news release notes. 

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Credit: Susan Weller (Panthera)

Bracketed by Khao Yai National Park in the west and Ta Phraya National Park in the east, the Eastern Forest Complex encompasses some 6,155 square kilometres along the Korat Plateau, most of it primary evergreen or semi-evergreen tropical forest. The confirmation of a breeding population of tigers here is especially validating given how long and tenaciously the DNP and Freeland searched for any tigers in the region. Dedicated rangers ran anti-poaching patrols in the Forest Complex even when evidence for the big cats was lacking.

"The existence of tigers here was often doubted, but these recent surveys are proving its importance not only nationally but regionally and internationally as well," Kraisak Choonhaven, Freeland's chairman of the board, said.

Only about 221 Indochinese tigers are thought to survive in the wild, and Thailand harbours the most. The biggest population – and until now the only known breeding one – resides in the Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary in Thailand's Western Forest Complex. Smaller numbers still cling to survival in Myanmar and Laos, but the subspecies has likely disappeared from Cambodia, Vietnam and China.

The presence of Indochinese tigers in the Eastern Forest Complex only underscores the ecological importance of this wilderness landscape, enveloped by intensively developed and cultivated countryside. Besides sheltering an estimated 800 species of wildlife – including Asian elephants, two kinds of gibbons and the critically endangered Siamese crocodile – the forest here is a major regional fountainhead, giving rise to a number of important rivers such as the Mun.


But the threats to this precious landscape are great: from wildlife poaching and illegal harvest of highly prized Siamese rosewood, to road development within its bounds and the pressure of agriculture and other human activities along its borders. As Mongabay notes, the World Heritage Committee is slated to decide this July whether or not to place the site on its "World Heritage in Danger" list. 

Dr John Goodrich, the senior director of Panthera's tiger programme, notes that the Eastern Forest Complex could, with robust protection and monitoring, host eight times its present tiger population.

"With continued infiltration of rigorous anti-poaching protection," Goodrich said, "there is no doubt that this population can be fully recovered, burgeoning into a tiger stronghold and serving as a source of life and diversity for depleted tiger populations in Cambodia, Lao PDR and throughout the species' range."


Top header image: DNP/Freeland