March 1, 2009
Tree felling threatens Sumatra’s tigers with extinction, but they are fighting back. Adam Gartrell reports.
Didy Wurjanto believes Sumatra’s few remaining tigers are trying to send mankind a message.
The critically endangered big cats killed six people last month. Most, it seems, were illegal loggers, plying their trade in protected national parks in Indonesia’s Jambi province.
“This is a very interesting case,” Mr Wurjanto, head of the Jambi’s official nature conservancy agency, BKSDA, said last week.
“It’s as if the tigers are sending a signal to Jambi’s people that we have to be aware about using the forest’s resources, we have to do it wisely and sustainably. If not, this is what will happen. Nature will become angry.”
In Sumatra, nature has every right to be angry.
It’s estimated that almost half of Sumatra’s natural forests have been cleared in the past 22 years, legally and illegally.
The wood is used for furniture, and to feed Indonesia’s voracious pulp and paper mills. The land is often converted into farmland and palm oil plantations.
This intense deforestation has left Sumatra’s wildlife — tigers, orang-utans, elephants and rhinos — with little room to move.
The cute and cuddly orang-utan’s plight attracts the most attention. But the tigers are much closer to extinction’s door. The World Wildlife Fund estimates there are no more than 400 Sumatran tigers left in the wild, and perhaps as few as 250.
That’s down from about 1000 in the late 1970s.
The WWF believes the tiger could be the first large predator to become extinct this century.
Meanwhile, experts believe attacks like those seen last month will become more common — and loggers won’t be the only people who fall prey.
As tigers are forced to compete more and more with humans for living space and food, they will continue to move into more marginal areas where there is easy prey: livestock and villagers.
“I don’t think it will stop,” said WWF Indonesia’s Desmarita Murni.
“It will continue to happen unless the situation improves. It’s another reason why we need to protect these tigers’ habitats, and give them space.”
But the attacks are unlikely to deter illegal loggers. More likely, they will spark retaliation. Villagers in the province of Riau, which neighbours Jambi, reportedly speared three young tigers to death this month, after the cats strayed into their village in search of food.
Three, from a population of less than 400. If other villagers follow this lead, it won’t be long before the tiger is history.
What’s more, some believe the global economic downturn could force more people into the black market timber business.
Krystof Obidzinski, policy scientist with the Centre for International Forestry Research, said many Indonesians got into the business when the Asian financial crisis hit in the 1990s.
“Significant numbers of people are being put out of work already, so we will have to wait and see what impact that will have for illegal logging,” he said.
When President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono took office, the Government stepped up the fight against illegal logging. But Mr Obidzinski said there have been very few convictions and very little money or timber recovered.
“If we look at those indicators, it’s a bit iffy, a bit so so, not very impressive.”
And Sumatran tigers have to contend with more than destruction of their habitat.
The tigers are also at significant risk from hunters and poachers, who sell their skins and other parts as charms, trophies and for use in tradition Chinese medicines. The wildlife trade monitoring organisation TRAFFIC said tiger parts are readily available from Indonesian dealers, and often on open display.
TRAFFIC claims poachers also sell Sumatran tiger parts to South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Japan, Malaysia and China.
“It can be very lucrative,” TRAFFIC program officer Julia Ng said. “They can make a lot of money from one animal.”
But TRAFFIC said Indonesian authorities have taken very little action against local retailers who sell tiger parts. Until they do, the trade will continue to thrive.
Overall, things certainly look grim for the Sumatran tiger. It may soon go the way of Balinese and Javanese tigers — both of which were exterminated during the 20th century.
Ms Murni is not quite so pessimistic. “There’s still hope,” she said.
“But this problem has to be taken seriously, and fast.”
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