On the Tigers’ Trail

Follow an SAP employee through the rainforests of Southeast Asia.

“Everybody out, please!” Not for the first time on this strenuous drive through the forest, the expedition party is being asked to get out of the 4x4s that are packed with equipment and supplies.

Is it another of those treacherous creeks that the vehicles need to cross without the weight of passengers to avoid getting stuck in the mud and rocks on the riverbed? No. This time there’s a different reason for our unscheduled stop. We climb out of the vehicles, leaving behind the comfortable leather seats and the pleasant – though artificial – cool air coming from the 4x4s’ air-conditioning systems. Out in the open, you immediately sense the remoteness and vibrancy of this place. Glaring sunlight pierces through gaps in 16-foot bamboo trees and thick-leaved banana plants, producing that dry, scorching heat that is typical of Thailand’s dry evergreen forest in the summer.

This is pure, unspoiled nature; a “digital detox zone” where you won’t find a cell phone signal, an internet connection, or any other link to civilization except the narrow, rugged track that is just wide enough for our caravan to navigate.

We follow our uniformed guides, the only people who could have brought us here, into the undergrowth. These men and women are rangers from Thailand’s Mae Wong National Park, some 215 miles north of Bangkok. Suddenly, one of them signals to us to stop. He beckons Tanja Schätz-Kruft forward. He wants her to see it first. They both crouch down, inspect something on the ground, move a few feet forward, check the ground again, and then a third time. Here they are at last: Wider than a human hand, three pugmarks pressed into the moist earth and almost obscured by dry undergrowth. Even a layman can see that a very large animal has passed this way. These are fresh tiger tracks.

Friday Is “Tiger Day”

Tanja’s regular job involves inspecting things too; though in this case, it’s SAP security concepts, not tiger tracks. She works four days a week as a communications expert in SAP Global Security, where she looks at how to instill the right level of security awareness in SAP employees around the world and to provide them with the knowledge they need. The fifth day, Friday, is reserved for tigers.

In 2012, having received the go-ahead from SAP to reduce her employment level to 80%, Tanja was able to realize her dream of setting up her own animal protection foundation, A World for Tigers. At the time, the situation for tigers around the world was already critical. With only about 3,200 animals remaining in the wild, they were close to extinction.

“Ultimately, my decision to help the tigers was emotional, not rational. I’ve loved tigers ever since I was a child, and I knew that if something didn’t happen fast, they would soon be gone forever. I felt that I could contribute most by becoming active myself. Setting up my foundation and working successfully with the World Wide Fund for Nature has made my dream of becoming part of a tiger protection program come true,” says Tanja.

Tanja’s foundation, A World for Tigers, is dedicated to protecting the Indochinese tiger in Thailand and Myanmar. According to a 2016 estimate, there are only 196 of these tigers left, making them seriously at threat of extinction.

Thailand is a favorable location for animal protection work because the government is cooperative and the population is open to the preservation effort. All donations are channeled directly to the project area, and donors receive detailed information about the measures they have supported.

There are three main threats to the tigers’ survival:

  • Poaching: tiger parts fetch enormous sums of money on the black market. They are used in Asia and in traditional Chinese medicine.
  • Habitat loss: caused by deforestation
  • Prey depletion: as a result of hunting

Some of the measures required to protect tigers are:

  • Deployment of rangers
  • Education for schoolchildren and the general population
  • Habitat preservation

Zorro and Co.

Stooping to look at the pugmarks, the ranger tells Tanja that they probably belong to Zorro. He is one of the park’s oldest and strongest male tigers. Thanks to the support of Tanja’s foundation and the work of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), there are now precise records of the wild animal population in Thailand’s Western Forest Complex, particularly the endangered tigers, for every year since 2012.

Each tiger is identifiable by its coat pattern, as no two of these majestic big cats’ fur patterns are ever the same. And it is his distinctive coat that gives Zorro his name. While all the tigers on the database just have a reference number made up of letters and numbers (Zorro’s reference number is MKM2), Zorro is also registered under his nickname, which derives from the distinctive z-shaped marking on the inner side of his left front leg (see photo). The data stored on each tiger includes its age, size, weight, and number of offspring. The width and characteristics of the pugmarks we’ve found give Zorro’s presence away. He was at exactly this spot about two or three days ago.

According to current records, 16 tigers range the area covered by the Mae Wong and Khlong Lan National Parks. A World for Tigers has pledged to protect the Indochinese tiger in Thailand and Myanmar and is providing the local rangers with the specific support they need to do this. Their job is to locate illegal poachers’ camps in the jungle, confiscate weapons and poaching equipment, and arrest suspicious persons. They also mount camera traps (consisting of trail and video cameras fitted with motion sensors) in trees and review the material captured on film once a month to systematically track the animal population.

The tiger (Panthera tigris) is the largest living big cat. In Buddhism, it is revered as a wise leader, and it has even been designated the official animal of India. The tiger once populated large parts of Asia. While there were still about 100,000 specimens of these majestic big cats left a century ago, today there are only about 3,900 roaming wild. Because of its dwindling numbers, the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources) has listed the Indochinese tiger as “critically endangered.”

Tiger Conservation in Action

Several years after setting up her foundation, Tanja has finally made the 7,000-mile trip to visit the area where her help has long since begun to have an impact. Her main objective is to see animal protection in action. Which is why she is taking part in one of the regular ranger patrols in Mae Wong National Park. After the discovery of tiger tracks, our bumpy 4×4 ride continues and takes us deep into the forest to a ranger station that was jointly financed by Tanja’s foundation.

Idyllically situated in a clearing next to a gurgling stream, the station consists of three buildings, a solar power unit, and several campfires. The croaking of frogs and the calling of three wild peacocks enhance the romantic atmosphere of a scene that could easily come from one of those old safari movies. But there is nothing romantic about the ranger station’s purpose. The rangers need this stop-off station as a base from which to begin the expeditions that take them deep into the surrounding forest, often for days a time, and allow them to protect an even larger area than was previously possible.

Tanja, who is keen to find out as much as possible about the rangers’ everyday experiences, has been invited to spend the night at the station. Finally, she has an opportunity to find answers to all her many questions. Rung and George are on hand to interpret. The two biologists are WWF employees and have been working hand-in-hand with the rangers in Thailand’s national parks for many years.

The Danger Is Not Over

Not a single tiger has been registered as poached in the area since 2015, and 2016 saw the tiger population reach its highest level since monitoring began (there are now 10 adult tigers and six cubs). But these first, tentative successes will tempt neither Tanja nor the local animal conservationists to rest on their laurels. The discussion at the ranger station quickly turns to the hard facts of tiger protection.

All too often, bringing criminal charges against poachers is like tilting against windmills. Added to that, tigers are still sometimes seen by the local population as blood-thirsty beasts that kill and eat both humans and livestock. In truth, they are shy creatures and steer well clear of humans except in in extreme situations. Clearly, work is needed to erode deep-seated prejudices and educate people in the vital role tigers play in keeping the ecosystem intact. Another threat to the tiger population is Thailand’s flourishing tourism industry. On the one hand, infrastructure projects ­– such as the construction of roads, fences, and pipelines – are carving up the territories that these solitary animals need to roam and find new mates. On the other, the tigers’ prey base is shrinking. This is because, increasingly, the big game that is unique to this area is appearing on menus in local restaurants to attract tourists – rather than being eaten by the tigers who rely on it to survive.

Words, Deeds, Purpose

This is exactly the kind of information Tanja needs. As she sips her early morning coffee next to the stream, she is already planning future measures and activities. Tanja not only collects donations through her foundation. Despite being far away in Germany, her objective is to be personally involved in protecting the tiger population.

“The great thing is that I can actively contribute to decisions about how and where to spend the donations we receive,” she says. “It’s very important to me to liaise with the WWF project lead every year on which activities have top priority in our project area and what A World for Tigers can materially contribute. We regularly call each other to discuss the progress and status of the activities we’ve planned,” says Tanja. And when it comes to formulating these activities in more detail, the chance to speak to personnel on the ground is invaluable.

The night spent in the forest was surprisingly cold. As we leave the game station behind us, Tanja tells me that it was while watching huge dewdrops fall incessantly from the roof of her tent that her reasons for doing what she does became clearer to her than ever before: “Everyone needs a purpose in life. That can vary enormously from person to person. The main thing is that each of us achieves contentment and the feeling of having done something positive.”

During the last days of her trip, Tanja is invited to a local market and a village school – visits that are an integral and crucial part of the rangers’ regular public relations work. They have formed a band that appears at events like these – always to great applause. And inflatable mascots in the shape of a tiger, a panda (the symbol of the WWF), and a muntjac deer (the tiger’s main prey) are invariably a big hit with children. The rangers often hail from the local area themselves and therefore connect easily with the population, both young and old. They patiently answer everyone’s questions, refer to the flyers and handouts they have brought with them, and distribute posters to hordes of beaming children.

Theirs is not a nine-to-five job by any means. But they know as well as Tanja: Time is running out for the world’s tigers.

Today, Zorro is more than just a memory in Tanja’s mind, in this report, and in Thailand’s rainforest. But what of the future? Tanja has set herself one goal: “Each of us leaves tracks as we pass through life, and my wish would be for my tracks to remain when I have gone. Then I could feel that I had done something useful with my life.”

Tanja lives with her husband in Heidelberg and enjoys walking her dogs in the nearby vineyards. She holds a PhD in biology, specializing in biophysics and bioinformatics. She joined SAP in October 2001 and currently works as a communications expert in SAP Global Security.

Q: What do you feel you can give to the people around you?
: It makes me happy to think that, by realizing my own dream, I can maybe encourage others to give their aspirations a chance and to take the first step – no matter how hard that might seem. I would never have thought a few years ago that I would have my own foundation, and now I do!

Do you have a role model?
Albert Schweitzer. To me, he is one of the key figures of the animal protection movement. He held a deep reverence for life, and that included respect for the entire animal kingdom.

What’s your motto for life?
My motto is “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” This reminds me again and again that change starts with the individual.

We would like to thank the World Wide Fund for Nature for their kind support in creating this story.