Indonesia races against time to keep its treasured tigers in existence

Authorities in Riau province are racing against time to rescue a Sumatran tiger nicknamed Bonita and to prevent its possible slaughter by increasingly impatient locals, who have raised the option of killing the endangered species as the last resort if the tiger remains on the loose roaming a palm oil plantation area in Indragiri Hilir district.

“We are trying to calm the nerves of local people since they are threatening to kill the tiger. We have got them involved in this effort and asked them to coordinate first with us if they make their own plan to capture the tiger,” said Mulyo Utomo, a spokesperson for Riau Natural Resources and Conservation Agency, or BKSDA.

The female tiger is blamed for fatally mauling Yusri Effendi, a construction worker in Indragiri Hilir district on March 10, after he and his colleagues came across the tiger, when they thought the predator already left the site where they had been hiding for two hours. She is also blamed for mauling to death Jumiati, a local palm oil plantation worker, in January.

Local authorities have been trying for more than two months to rescue the elusive big cat from the plantation. Police and military snipers have been included in the team for their expertise to shoot the tiger with tranquilizer darts, while vets in the team have decided to increase the dosage of tranquilizer since previous efforts to sedate the tiger were unsuccessful.

“We and all related stakeholders such as military, police and tiger conservationist continue to educate the locals so they have the basic knowledge on how to avoid clashing with a tiger, to assist them in trauma recovery and to patrol the area where Bonita roams,” Suharyono, head of Riau BBKSDA said last week after a meeting with representatives Pulau Muda village where the late Yusri was from.

During the meeting on Thursday, they urged authorities to capture the tiger as soon as possible to prevent another mauling and the human-tiger conflict to escalate further.

Panti's last look
A female Sumatran tiger nicknamed Panti, shortened from Panthera Tigris, just exited her cage as she was being released back into the wild in Tambling forest, Lampung in 2010. Photo: The Parrot/Ismira Lutfia Tisnadibrata

This incident sends an alarming reminder that if the conflict persists, Indonesia could soon lose one of its national treasures and the last surviving tiger subspecies it has.

On March 4, another Sumatran tiger was speared to death by villagers in Mandailing Natal district of North Sumatra. They grew anxious after a tiger was spotted roaming under a stilt house in Bangkelang village. Prior to that, rumours had been rife about a “shapeshifter” in the form of a tiger prowling local fields, where a villager had been badly injured.

Hotmauli Sianturi, the head of North Sumatra BKSDA said conservationists had advised against killing the animal and explained to residents that the big cat was endangered and protected by law.

But when conservationists and vets arrived at the village with tranquilizer darts, locals blocked them from reaching the house where the tiger had been spotted. They later they received reports that the tiger had been killed. Ironically, the incident took place just a day after the United Nations’ World Wildlife Day, which this year had threats to big cats as its theme.

“We believed the tiger was sick and weak. We were told it didn’t fight back when the villagers attacked him,” agency spokesman Alfianto Siregar said.

Pictures of the tiger’s disemboweled carcass strapped to a wooden bench and hanging from a ceiling went viral on social media.

Siregar said a necropsy showed the tiger was a male and estimated to be two or three years old. Vets also discovered that skin patches on its face, forehead, hind legs and tail as well as its claws were missing, prompting speculation that the killing was partly triggered by the lucrative lure of illegal trade in tiger body parts.

“We are upset that a villager was injured by the tiger but we also regret the tiger’s sadistic killing, which was followed by its body parts being harvested,’” said Laksmi Datu Bahaduin, an executive officer of Forum Harimau Kita (FHK) or Our Tiger Forum based in Bogor, West Java.

Rasyid Dongaran, executive director of Sumatra Rainforest Institute, said local people were regretful for resorting to kill the apex predator, but they believed that according to age-old local wisdom, the slain tiger had crossed its customary boundaries by venturing into human settlements.

Rasyid said local people held tigers in high regards as they had coexisted peacefully in Sumatran forests since ancient times. People in some parts of Sumatra even refer tigers with the honorific title of ‘datuk’ which means leader or grandfather. In North Sumatra, tiger is referred to as ‘opung’ which also means grandfather. They also believe there is a natural consensus that tigers as solitary animals would stay within their natural habitat. By nature, tigers rarely prey on people and avoid direct contact with humans.

“Locals are used to spotting tiger paw prints on their fields and they are fine with that as long as the tigers do not roam into villages,” Rasyid said, adding that hanging the slain tiger in the ceiling was meant to prevent further harvesting of body parts.

Killing a protected species such as Sumatran tigers is punishable by up to five years imprisonment and maximum fines of 100 million rupiah, according to the 1990 Natural Conservation Law.

But Rasyid said law enforcement should be imposed on all parties that cause the conflict to escalate, such as poachers, illegal loggers and officials who turned a blind eye on the practice, which has caused massive deforestation and deprived tigers of dense natural forest as their habitat, in addition to rapid forest clearing for mining and palm oil concessions.

“Tigers are beleaguered because they are losing their forest corridors where they live and roam to find prey. Each individual tiger needs a roaming area at least 10 kilometer square,” he said.

Panti in his cage.
Panti crouched in her cage prior to her release. Photo: The Parrot/Afriadi Hikmal

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has studied the tiger landscape in 13 tiger range countries, seven of which are in Southeast Asia – Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam – and says their ranges have been reduced by 95 percent, leaving populations fragmented and isolated.

The WWF report, released in November and titled Beyond the Stripes: Save Tigers, Save So Much More, highlights the importance of conserving tigers. This also means conserving some of the world’s richest ecosystems, including the animals they prey on, thus keeping a balance in the ecosystem and conserving many other Asia’s iconic, threatened species that live in the same forest.

In Sumatra, the tiger range overlaps completely with those of the orangutan and rhinoceros, which are also endangered and have also been pushed to the brink of extinction. Keeping the forest landscape intact for tigers means protecting the various other species that live in the forest and it also means storing more carbon, which helps to mitigate climate change.

“Tiger habitats overlap nine globally important watersheds, which supply water to as many as 830 million people in India, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia’s Sumatra,” the report said.

Tiger conservation is also essential for Asian sociocultural context. Tigers are depicted in folktales and various forms of civilisation in tiger range countries, many of which portray tiger as a symbol of strength and power.

The economic strengths of some Asian countries earned them the term “tiger economies”. One of Indonesia’s most powerful military commands, Siliwangi, which oversees the country’s most populous province of West Java, uses a depiction of the now-extinct Javan tiger for its military might symbol. Tiger is also the national animal of four Asian countries, such as Malaysia and India.

Tiger landscapes protect sacred natural sites important to a range of faiths and culture in Asia and areas where indigenous people live. According to the report, conserving tiger landscapes would help to protect cultures, if done with sensitivity to human needs.

Sunarto, a wildlife ecologist with the WWF Indonesia in Riau, said Indonesia has the ability to prevent the loss but it will require political will and leadership at the national level.

“It requires a national figure at the top who is vocal to spearhead tiger conservation efforts to make people really listen and pay attention,” he said.

“This is what I find really lacking in Indonesia. Are we ready to lose our Sumatran tiger? We are seeing a fast rate of tigers pushed to extinction in just over two generations, whereas tigers have existed in our forests for hundreds of years,” he added.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the Sumatran tiger as critically endangered. There are an estimated 300 to 400 tigers living in the Sumatran forest where they face constant poaching threats and are losing their natural habitat due to rapid deforestation. Indonesia already lost its Javan and Balinese tiger subspecies which went extinct in the 1920’s and 1940’s respectively.

“It is unfortunate that we can’t keep our treasure. Sumatran tiger is a symbol that we still have an ancient animal in our land, which has evolved and survived over centuries,” Rasyid said.

This story has been updated from its original version in Bangkok Post


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