9 Nov 2023


With as few as 5,600 left in the wild, every big cat counts. Take action now to help protect tigers and save them from extinction.

It's early morning and Merapi and his wife, Ayu, are getting their children ready for the day. Teeth are being brushed and food is being prepared. This sounds like a normal day for most but for Merapi this is just the start.

Merapi sits on a wooden deck looking into the camera. He is wearing a yellow short and cap. Behind him are forest-covered mountains.
Merapi Bin Mat Razi sits under the community shelter in a community in Royal Belum State Park, Malaysia. © Emmanuel Rondeau / WWF-US
Ayu walks alongside the wooden wall of her home. She is wearing a pink short, black pants and sandals. There are other people and trees in the surrounding bush.
Merapi’s wife Ayu Bin Sudin walks along their home to tend to their seedlings. © Emmanuel Rondeau / WWF-US

In a few hours he’ll be leading an anti-poaching patrol team deep into the rainforest of Royal Belum State Park, and this is a job that comes with high stakes. Patrols can last two weeks and it’s dangerous and tough work hiking through the jungle, sleeping in hammocks, being attacked by leeches, crossing rivers all while carrying heavy packs and looking out for poachers.

Why does Merapi and his team risk their lives like this? To protect their home.

Merapi Bin Mat Razi is an Orang Asli, which translates to ‘original people’, who are the Indigenous Peoples of Peninsular Malaysia. Part of the Jahai ethnic group, his family lives in one of 19 villages in the Belum-Temengor Forest Complex, a 130 million year old rainforest in northern Malaysia.

A black and white illustrative map shows Malaysia on the left, while a coloured illustrative map shows the Belum-Temengor Forest Complex in green, with a red road running through the centre.
Illustrative map that shows the location of the Belum-Temengor Forest Complex in the north of Malaysia. In this forest complex a road divides Royal Belum State Park in the north and Temengor Forest Reserve in the south. © WWF-US

Only Orang Asli are permitted to live within these protected forests. The Jahai have intimate knowledge of the forest’s ecosystem and many still earn a living from it. This treed world is infused with ancient myth and meaning, where life and traditions are always rooted in the wilderness.

“I love the forest so much: the wildlife, the herbs, and of course the tigers,” explains Merapi.

As stewards of the land, the Jahai know this area better than anyone. The rainforest, its resources and wildlife hold significant value to them but they’re not the only ones who see value in this land. Many outsiders are interested in the price tag hanging off century-old trees or around the necks of wildlife, and this brings danger to Merapi’s door.

Merapi Mat Razi, Senior anti-poaching patrol member at WWF–Malaysia, stands in front of the Kooi Waterfall in Royal Belum State Park, an important site for WWF-Malaysia’s tiger conservation work.
Merapi Mat Razi, Senior anti-poaching patrol member at WWF–Malaysia, stands in front of the Kooi Waterfall in Royal Belum State Park, an important site for WWF-Malaysia’s tiger conservation work. © Emmanuel Rondeau / WWF-US
Merapi sits on a huge twisted vine in the forest.
Merapi sits on a liana during a patrol in Royal Belum State Park, Malaysia © Emmanuel Rondeau / WWF-US

During 2017 a crisis was declared as snares set by poachers littered the forest floor of Royal Belum State Park. These traps have decimated wildlife populations here, greatly threatening the country’s national animal: the tiger.

“In 2010, Royal Belum was known to have the highest density of tigers in the country but because of the snaring in 2017 and 2018 we saw a 50-60% reduction of tigers in that small park,” says Christopher (Chris) Wong, WWF-Malaysia’s Tiger Lead. 

A snared tiger being rescued by personnel from the Department of Wildlife and National Parks. It was discovered by one of WWF-Malaysia's patrol teams in a snare set by local poachers in the Belum-Temengor Forest Complex, Malaysia.
Snared tiger in Malaysia © WWF-Malaysia / Lau Ching Fong
A deceased barking deer lays under a tree in the forest. Its hair is muddy.
Barking deer, a tiger prey species, killed in a snare in Royal Belum State Park, Malaysia © Lau Ching Fong / WWF-Malaysia

After decades of decline, there are now estimated to be less than 150 tigers left in the whole country (as of 2023); they're on the brink of becoming nationally extinct. 

This is why, in 2018, WWF-Malaysia partnered with a number of the Orang Asli to form Project Stampede: an Indigenous patrol team tasked with scaling the forests of Royal Belum State Park to remove snares, deter poachers and collect data on poaching. But first, to understand the significance of the partnership between Project Stampede and WWF-Malaysia we need to rewind the clock.

WWF-Malaysia first started partnering with Indigenous communities in the area in 2009 and it was a few years later that Umi, WWF-Malaysia’s Senior Community Engagement & Education Officer, first met Merapi.

“I knew Merapi maybe 10 years ago and the Merapi I knew has a shy personality, usually I did most of the talking. I saw Merapi slowly getting involved in conservation efforts and now we are working in conservation together as a team,” explains Umi.

Building trust and shared values is the foundation for successful long-term conservation partnerships and that’s exactly what Project Stampede is.

“It’s very important to engage with Indigenous Peoples on tiger conservation. We know that the Orang Asli are residing within Belum-Temengor, so they are the key stakeholders for conservation efforts,” continues Umi.

Her warm personality and commitment to the communities she works with is a special combination; for her it’s personal.

“They treat me as family. This is something that I can’t put into words. I’m so grateful. This is a real partnership, where we are learning with each other.”

Senior Community Engagement and Education Officer Umi sits on a wooden deck, writing on a notebook. She has turned to face the camera and is smiling.
Umi Rahman photographed in the village of Sungai Tiang © Emmanuel Rondeau / WWF-US
Two women sit inside a room with wood panelled walls. They are in conversation and smiling. Both are wearing colourful beaded necklaces.
Ambos, an elder of the Sungai Raba village, and Umi Rahman (WWF Malaysia Senior Community Engagement Officer) sit and chat, Temengor Forest Reserve, Malaysia. © Emmanuel Rondeau / WWF-US

Since it started, Project Stampede has been incredibly successful and the teams have reduced the number of active snares in the forest by 98%. The team have trekked bags upon bags of snares out of the forest to be destroyed. On one occasion Merapi’s team spent two to three days removing over 100 snares from just one area. But this work is dangerous

“When I first started this job, my family was worried about me. The poachers in the area learned about what I was doing, and one day I was visiting Gerik [the nearest major town] and one of them grabbed my shirt, and said something threatening in my ear,” recalls Merapi.

“It is a dangerous job. But I need to continue, it is my duty.” 

Merapi Mat Razi (centre) holds a snare that was removed from Royal Belum State Park, Malaysia.
Merapi Mat Razi (centre) holds a snare that was removed from Royal Belum State Park, Malaysia. © Emmanuel Rondeau / WWF-US

Their impact has been felt beyond the removal of snares. Information they collect on poaching activities in Royal Belum has led to a number of arrests, notably of six foreign poachers by enforcement agencies in September 2019 and members of Project Stampede are now training some state park rangers on standard operating procedures. 

“For me the most important thing we can do is give training, capacity building and provide any support we can. But ultimately, they will and now do lead themselves. This is how it works: the communities living in the landscape have the rights and ability to protect it themselves,” explains Wafiy, WWF’s Senior Field Biologist, who has spent years learning the Jahai language and is also the SMART trainer in Belum-Temengor Forest Complex.

Weaving Indigenous knowledge and technology like SMART together has seen the patrol teams go from strength to strength. SMART enables the patrol teams to log GPS coordinates and images of anything from animal signs to poaching evidence and then upload that information to a shared database. Teams can log real-time data and have access to previous patrol information which makes their work more effective.

An anti-poaching patrol team out on patrol in Royal Belum State Park, Malaysia
An anti-poaching patrol team out on patrol in Royal Belum State Park, Malaysia © Emmanuel Rondeau / WWF-US
Four members of the patrol team logs data while surrounded by rainforest.
A patrol team logs data during a patrol in Royal Belum State Park, Malaysia. © Emmanuel Rondeau / WWF-US
Merapi stands in a rainforest, holding a GPS device. He is wearing a cap and a WWF t-shirt.
Merapi logs the GPS location of an animal sign they’ve seen during a patrol in Royal Belum State Park, Malaysia. © Emmanuel Rondeau / WWF-US

Today, there are 106 patrol team members across the landscape: 50 in Temengor in the south and 60 in Royal Belum in the north. These teams consist of the original Project Stampede Indigenous patrol team members and a number of rangers funded under the Biodiversity Protection and Patrolling Programme (BP3) - an initiative by the government to have Malaysian Forest protected. The threats facing this area needed a long-term solution, not just a quick fix, and Project Stampede was just that. 

What’s next?

While gains have been made, progress is fragile as poachers are still very much a threat to tigers and other wildlife across the Belum-Temengor Forest Complex. But far from these forests in a different environment entirely a legislative progress is being seen.

“We know that the model works in India and Nepal, where national task forces are put in place with a high political figure chairing it. In early 2022 Malaysia established its own Malaysian tiger task force,” says Chris.

It’s early days but there are signs of progress.

“It started in 2021 and in just one year we’ve seen the penalty raised from 500,000 MYR to 1,000,000 MYR for hunting, possession and trafficking of totally protected species. There have also been budget increases for patrolling and prison time has increased from 10-15 years for wildlife related offences.”

For communities living in tiger landscapes in Malaysia the future is not yet written. Many Orang Asli are involved in community initiatives led by the government’s Indigenous affairs department or NGOs, in tourism, agroforestry, and some take work outside of their communities in towns and cities. But for WWF’s community partnerships in Belum-Temengor Forest Complex there are many projects waiting to be explored. Social landscape mapping projects to better understand the relationship dynamics in communities and how tiger conservation projects can affect them are underway. It’s critical to understand how communities are changing and adapting and how this affects long-term sustainable tiger conservation projects.

For Merapi though, when asked if he has hopes for the future of tigers in Belum-Temengor, Merapi’s answer is short, instant, and delivered with a wide grin. “Yes.”

Tiger, Royal Belum State Park (Malaysia)
Tiger, Royal Belum State Park (Malaysia) © Emmanuel Rondeau / WWF-US