How Malaysians could literally be 'driving' the Malayan tiger back from near-extinction

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Tiger plateThe challenge was to find ways to involve Malaysian citizens in conservation efforts so that it wasn’t just about donating money or paying a green tax. UNDP Photo.

It’s called ‘the spine.’
 
It’s the ‘The Central Forest Spine’ in all the official paperwork of course. An appropriate mouthful for a formidable five million hectares of wildlife sanctuary that is essentially the green lung and water tower of Peninsular Malaysia.

It harbours an incredible array of plant and animal species including the endangered Malayan tiger, (perhaps less than 500 left alive today) largely limited to this sanctuary. The ‘Spine’ is also the source of essential water for over 28 million people including the inhabitants of Singapore.

Recognising that the country’s breakneck economic growth was coming at the terrible cost of the long-term viability of the country’s wild spaces and eco-systems, the Malaysian government decided to set up a National Conservation Trust Fund to look for ways to straddle growth with conservation.

A powerful idea emerged.

A new conservation masterplan would connect patches of fragmented forest across the country into one sustainable whole. Here at UNDP, we’ve been supporting the government to operationalise the masterplan that looks as far into the future as two decades.   

The challenge, of course, has been to find ways to finance these efforts.

The more we thought about it, the more conviction we found in the belief that Malaysians themselves would buy into the idea of conserving their eco-heritage. This had two important outcomes. Local sources of funding were far more likely to ensure long term sustainability, and create national ownership over the idea that economic prosperity has to be buttressed by environmental sustainability.
 
We also wanted to find ways to involve Malaysian citizens in conservation efforts so that it wasn’t just about donating money or paying a green tax.  

We found our inspiration tens of thousands of miles away.

Every year the United States and Canada sees millions of US dollars raised for conservation through a simple idea: vanity number plates.

These are specially designed plates for which people pay an extra amount that goes to wildlife conservation. It is a proven viable and vibrantly effective mechanism, however, no Asian country has introduced it for conservation purposes. The potential is enormous. Even if only 1% of Malaysia’s 20 million vehicles bear the tiger plate, it could generate US$ 6 million at US$ 30 per number plate per year.

The beauty of this scheme as we’re now formulating it in Malaysia is that it enables public participation in tiger conservation, and serves in raising awareness on conservation.

We’re already thinking that if its successful in Malaysia, this scheme can be extended to vehicles in Singapore which also depends on the ‘spine’ for it's water. It is noted that thousands of tourist vehicles from Singapore cross the Malaysian border every year. This will furthermore, provide a very innovative bilateral initiative which other countries in Asia and beyond could follow. Even if only 5% of Singapore’s 950,000 vehicles bear the plate, it could generate US$ 1.4 million annually. The suggestion is for both Singapore and Malaysia to jointly establish a tiger conservation number plate scheme, expressing their mutual interests and actions to save the Malayan Tiger through habitat management.

Having discussed with the Road Transport Department, we noticed that there are no specific complications on the legal and administrative side, as these vanity plates has been done before. It would require a straight forward administrative directive from the Road Transport Department (RTD) to issue these plates.

We hope to launch the prototype plates and gauge public opinion in the coming weeks. If it works, this funding stream will enable state governments to have stable financing for conservation. Moreover, this idea will provide an opportunity for creating public awareness and participation in conservation. It’s a powerful idea – all the more so because it’s so simple.   

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