Capturing a tiger on camera has always been Ed Pollard's goal, but now it's a necessity. His Wildlife Conservation Society has staked its prestige on a pledge to boost tiger numbers by half across six Asian sites over the next 10 years.
The Seima Biodiversity Conservation Area in northeastern Cambodia is one of the locations. So collecting accurate data on tiger numbers and food sources is crucial. The $10 million initiative, called Tigers Forever, was officially launched in January.
As few as 5,000 tigers survive in the wild in Asia, down from some 100,000 a century ago. WCS's other targets for tiger conservation are in India, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand.
For the Tigers Forever project, the New York-based group has 15 pairs of cameras covering paths and trails across nearly 80 square miles of the Cambodian forest's core. They are moved every few weeks, set in pairs because the stripes on a tiger are not symmetrical, and the animal must be photographed on both sides before identification is definite.
When the first films were collected last month, there was almost schoolboy-style excitement. The researcher who retrieved them reported a fresh tiger track on a trail leading straight to one of the cameras. But something must have lured the beast off the path before it broke the beam that would have triggered the cameras.
The conservation group has been operating here since 2002, the year it got its first and so far only tiger photo. But paw prints are found quite often, especially in the softer ground during the rainy season, and there have been regular sightings. Native tracker Den Amboyn says he came face to face with a tiger on a logging road last year. "I was scared but I managed to get away," he says.
Of all the sites in Asia, the Cambodian one has the fewest tigers, probably no more than 10. But country director Joe Walston is confident of hitting the target, in part because the zone has plenty of prey. "As tiger habitat it's close to optimal," he says.
Increased protection is part of the plan. Some of the Tigers Forever money will go toward building three more ranger stations at key points in the jungle over the next three years.
With every identified tiger now at a premium, Pollard is tantalized by a story told by the forest-dwelling Phnong people, who say they know of a tiger that lives in a cave but whose whereabouts can't be revealed because the wood is sacred.
Pollard has spent many hours poring over maps, trying to find it. "I think I know where it is now," he says, "or at least I think I'm getting close."