Extinct tigers offer an opportunity to learn from history: David Macdonald introduces WildCRU’s new “lessons in memoriam” article on human-tiger conflict and the demise of Singapore’s tigers


Never believe what you read in the newspapers, some might say, but sometimes they can be informative.  In a team of our collaborators, led by WildCRU’s Dr Cedric Tan,  we used newspaper reports archived in the National Library of Singapore to extract reports of historical human-tiger interactions in the small island of Singapore (576 km2)

From 1831-1930, these papers reported 156 tiger sightings, 211 fatal tiger attacks on people and 114 tiger captures, with the peak of 6.8 people killed annually from 1846-1865.

4 Nov 1841 newspaper article, copyright Singapore National  Archives4 Nov 1841 newspaper article, copyright Singapore National Archives

20 June 1839 newspaper article, copright Singapore National Archives

20 June 1839 newspaper article, copright Singapore National Archives

These numbers are sobering for those armchair conservationists who imagine that living with big carnivores is pure delight but, on the other hand, the newspapers reveal that the mood of the day included little of today’s enthusiasm for resolving human-carnivore conflict.  From 1910 onwards, there was a sharp decline in the number of tiger incidents, concluding with the last wild tiger being captured in 1930 – a date which is surely chillingly recent for those who might want to shrug off responsibility for large mammal extinctions as the carelessness or philistine ignorance of bygone ages. Our press analysis reveals that most of the victims killed by tigers were adult men and most were Chinese, who were mainly plantation workers and woodcutters and most were working in a plantation or the forest when they were killed. The fates of the tigers make gruesome reading: most were captured in pits and then shot or were shot directly during  retaliatory killings. In addition there was a reward from the authorities for each tiger killed, which then brought added benefits from the sale of its meat for Chinese medicine and of its skin to collectors. Europeans also took up hunting of tigers as a sport.

Meanwhile, the loss of 99.2% of forest cover from pre-1831 to 1910 surely added pressures to the tiger population, and the spread of plantations in place of forests would have brought tigers into ever closer proximity to people in pursuit of the wild boar attracted to these plantations.

The WildCRU team interprets this sad history as evidence that Singapore’s completely unmanaged tiger subpopulation was sufficiently resilient that until about 1871 it was able to withstand pressures from habitat loss and hunting, especially when it was replenished by immigrants from the Malaysian tiger subpopulation. However, ultimately the uncontrolled hunting and weak forest governance, especially poor land use planning (from a tiger conservation perspective) proved too much to bear – this is a history that should not be allowed to repeat itself.

  • Malay Tiger, Wikimedia Commons