Sumatran tigers on the brink of extinction as poaching, deforestation remains rampant
With fewer than 400 Sumatran tigers left in the wild, the recent death of a pregnant tiger and two unborn cubs in a poacher’s snare was particularly devastating.
Villagers in a remote area of Sumatra’s Riau province heard the animal wailing and called for help.
The tiger managed to escape the trap, but every effort she made to shake off the metal wire only led to it cutting more tightly into her abdomen. She died before rangers arrived.
The tiger was only days from giving birth, but even so, her male and female cubs could not be saved.
This tiger was only days from giving birth when villagers heard it wailing after being caught in a trap. (WWF: Febri Widodo)
Poaching of tigers and other wildlife remains rampant in Indonesia, despite efforts to stamp it out, and profits from poaching are driving the Sumatran tiger closer to extinction.
“There’s a lot of money in it,” said Budi*, a reformed poacher.
After 30 years hunting tigers he is now helping conservation group WWF hunt down the poachers instead.
He admits to catching and killing at least 30 tigers.
“I would set up the traps, catch them and sell them,” he said.
“I was often caught, but with the local rangers and police I was safe. I never went to court. We would settle it there and then.”
When Budi first sold a tiger he was paid 850,000 rupiah, or $85 in today’s money.
But the price kept “going up, higher and higher”.
“The last tiger I sold for 9,500,000 rupiah [almost $1,000].”
Deforestation affecting tigers and prey
Deforestation and rapid development have reduced tigers’ habitat in Sumatra at an astonishing rate.
Jungles are being logged — often illegally — and plantations have sprung up in their place.
WWF calculates that 49 per cent of Sumatra’s native forests have been lost since 2000 to make way for developments such as palm oil, rubber and paper plantations.
The world’s sixth-biggest island has been transformed from a pristine landscape into a global commodities producer with billions of dollars at stake.
Between 2000 and 2015 an average of 1.82 hectares — slightly bigger than the Melbourne Cricket Ground — was felled every hour of every day.
Almost half of Sumatra’s forest have been cleared to make way for plantations and other developments. (ABC News: Anne Barker)
Such a loss of native habitat affects not only the Sumatran tiger but also its traditional prey, such as wild deer or monkeys.
Without a normal food supply, tigers are being pushed into areas they would once never go — namely villages and urban areas. Attacks on humans are not uncommon.
Last month an 80-kilogram male tiger became trapped under a shop in a densely populated market area.
Vets used a tranquilliser to sedate it and eventually pull it free.
One vet, Andita Septiandini, said the animal’s misadventure reflected multiple stresses on the broader species.
“The habitat of the tigers in Indonesia is not good,” she said.
“Tigers are fighting other tigers for food, because they don’t have the space to roam.
“They’re being forced into villages because it’s becoming harder to find prey in the jungle.”
‘There aren’t any tigers around anymore’
A tiger protection patrol sets out to find and document snares in the jungle. (ABC News: Anne Barker)
Villagers at Tanjung Belit remember the days when tigers were seen every day, and it was dangerous to venture into the forest.
One man, Kasim, whose own father was attacked and killed by a tiger in 1972, has not seen one in the wild since.
“There are more people now, in the past it was so quiet,” he said.
“Now the forest is full of people. People are farming in the forests, so there aren’t any tigers around anymore.”
Despite a steep decline in tiger numbers, WWF is hopeful the critically endangered Sumatran tiger can be brought back from the brink of extinction.
But it will take time, hard work, money and the support of government and key stakeholders — including consumers in Australia — to succeed.
The organisation is concentrating efforts on one key area in Central Sumatra where tigers still have considerable range to roam, mate and breed.
The Rimbang Baling Wildlife Reserve along Sumatra’s mountainous spine is one of 18 sites worldwide that WWF has identified as having the potential to triple their tiger populations within a human generation.
In the case of Sumatra, the aim is not only to stop poaching but also halt or at least slow the loss of more land to logging or plantations.
To that end, patrols are being strengthened on the ground to track and arrest poachers and destroy their snares.
Intelligence officers are infiltrating poaching networks and criminal logging syndicates. But corruption is rampant in Indonesia, where bribes can induce police or other authorities to turn a blind eye to poaching or illegal land clearing.
In successful cases, where land is reclaimed, environmentalists are ripping out palms or plantation timber and replanting indigenous species to restore native forests.
But it is a slow process.
It will take decades for tiger numbers — and by default other threatened species — to rebound.
To monitor their numbers in the wild, tiger protection patrols have installed tree cameras triggered by movement sensors.
They keep a record of every tiger caught on film. When the camera captures cubs or even a female, it is a good sign.
WWF teams up with Richmond Tigers
Environment groups also encourage land owners to expand plantations without the need to clear native forests — for example, by returning to abandoned plots.
Recently, WWF signed an agreement with the Richmond Football Club in Melbourne — the Tigers — to promote a tiger-awareness campaign in Australia, where it said there was currently “zero engagement” with the animal’s global plight.
WWF Australia’s Ashley Brooks said most of the conservation group’s activities in Sumatra, including its tiger patrols, were funded by donors or governments in Europe, Japan and the US.
Australians contribute next to nothing to tiger conservation.
Even two more patrols — at an annual cost of $25,000 — would go a long way to filling in gaps on the ground where poachers operate with impunity, Mr Brooks said.
Last week, two Richmond players, Nick Vlastuin and Jack Graham, spent three days in Sumatra watching the tiger-protection patrols at work in the Rimbang Baling area.
WWF has signed an agreement with the Richmond Football Club to promote tiger awareness in Australia. (ABC News: Anne Barker)
“If the club could sponsor a tiger-patrol unit, that would be pretty cool,” Vlastuin said.
“Even if we just do a couple of stories [on social media], hopefully something will come out of that.”
“People know we’re over here and our fans are loving it,” Graham added.
“So hopefully they can jump on board.”
Dr Brooks said many consumers would have no idea how their daily lives could directly impact on tigers in Sumatra, given the global reach of the palm oil, paper and rubber industries.
Indonesia is the world’s biggest producer of palm oil, which is found in a vast range of products from chocolate bars and ice-cream to soap, household cleaners and biofuels.
Indonesian rubber is used in the manufacture of shoes and tyres.
“Around 55 per cent of things on shelves in any supermarket of the world has palm oil in it or derivatives from oil palms,” Dr Brooks said.
“The paper and cardboard in offices around the world could potentially come from eucalypts, acacias.
“Without knowing it, everyone is somehow contributing to the threats or pressures on these beautiful landscapes. On one hand they might be donating to support tiger recovery, or elephant recovery, but on the other they’re consuming products that have contributed to the disappearance of their habitat.”
Tyre manufacturers aim to reduce impact
In November global tyre manufacturers launched an initiative to stop the destruction of forests for rubber plantations.
The Global Platform for Sustainable Natural Rubber, which includes Michelin and Goodyear, will begin operations in March with the goal of reducing deforestation and “land grabbing”, while protecting biodiversity.
The global tyre industry consumes an estimated 70 per cent of the world’s natural rubber supply, most of which comes from South-East Asia.
Similar initiatives have been established in the palm oil, coffee and cocoa industries, but with mixed success.
But any gains in the sustainability of palm oil, rubber or other commodities will be offset by the relentless rise in demand for their products, especially as incomes in key markets increase.
Environmental groups say rubber demand has risen over the past 20 years as emerging markets like China become wealthier, with more people able to buy cars and motorcycles.
All of this fuels deforestation and makes the plight of the Sumatran tiger all the more desperate.
Residents at Tanjung Belit know that if the tiger protection patrols fail, they are unlikely ever to see tigers around their village again.
“We used to see them once a day at least,” said Ali Zabur.
“They looked so angry, maybe because their habitat was already ruined. But they’re gone now because their forests have been destroyed. I feel sorry for them.”
(*not his real name)