Tiger lovers earning their stripes in the fight to save species
Last updated at 15:19, Thursday, 03 September 2009
THE disturbing news that an endangered Sumatran tiger had been killed for its fur and bones had been widely reported when we caught up with dedicated conservationist David Gill.
For a man who has committed the past 13 years protecting tigers on the brink of extinction in Indonesia, the news is a crushing blow.
If we can’t protect tigers in a zoo, how can we possibly save them in the wild?
“It is a worry and it is horrendous because this tiger couldn’t escape from its cage,” says the director of South Lakes Wild Animal Park in Dalton.
David Gill has visited Taman Rimba Zoo in Indonesia, where the female tiger was killed. Only the intestines were left, leading police to suspect the animal’s fur and bones were sold on to a thriving black market in body parts.
“This just shows you tigers are still thought of in monetary value and you have to be aware there’s still that pressure. Somebody’s taking backhanders,” speculates David. “People are poor. They struggle to find food every day. If somebody offers you more money than you can earn in 20 years just to close your eyes, you’re going to do it.
“The average wage is something like £1 a day. It’s a very different world to ours.
“They don’t get benefits. They have to get by. If their job doesn’t pay much and they want food and clothes for their kids, sometimes they could be tempted.”
But instead of becoming despondent, David’s pragmatic approach is “we’ve got to get out there and stop it”.
He adds: “I firmly believe that if we hadn’t been there in the last 13 years it would have been a very different story.”
David started the Sumatran Tiger Trust in 1996 in response to the plight of the critically endangered sub-species, the highest category of threat. They are on the brink of extinction because of rapid deforestation, poaching, and conflict with humans.
Thanks to funds raised through South Lakes Wild Animal Park the Trust now has three centres of operation in Sumatra; the tiger conservation area in Senepis, in the north; the reserve at Bukit Tigapuluh (Thirty Hills) national park just off the equator in eastern Sumatra and Way Kambas National Park in south Sumatra.
David and the park’s tiger keeper, Gavin Clooney, from Millom, recently returned from Sumatra with mixed news about the conservation projects. Their first visit was to Senepis.
Forest clearance and the rate of development of Dumai City have been linked with a recent upsurge in human tiger conflict.
The trust has assisted the government in Riau Province to cope with conflict issues by securing new areas of tiger habitat as a dedicated tiger conservation reserve and holding centre for problem tigers at a site called Sungei Senepis.
It’s a huge area of prime Sumatran tiger habitat, and consequently extremely difficult to police. During patrol they discovered vast tracts of the forest cleared by logging company Asia Pulp and Paper.
“We’ve been trying to work with them to get them to change their attitude to the forest,” explains David. They look at the forest and see cubic metres of wood. We see diversity and life. I’ve had many meetings with them and they’ve promised the earth but never delivered it.
“They promised us to selectively log, to take the bigger trees out but leave the cover and the smaller forest trees so the tigers could still live there.
“As we were walking we discovered a desert where there was once prolific life. They have bulldozed it, put canals in and it’s going to be a forest of acacia. They’ve logged probably hundreds of square kilometres, which is no small area and it’s the most horrendous thing to see.
“All the tigers that did live there have been pushed out and have gone into other areas and all the prey species that live there have gone.”
The problem in Indonesia is logging companies like APP own concessions from the government to log the land. And forest destruction is worth more to investors than forest preservation.
“It just shows you how vulnerable the world is,” explains David.
“They have the legal right to do it, they signed an agreement not to do it but they changed their mind. All these companies have put big sums of money to the government to get the trees. The value of commodities is so high you couldn’t dream of buying it back because it’s worth too much. So what we have to do is build corridors.”
Just as big a threat to the remaining tigers is the diminishing gene pool as groups of tigers become isolated through deforestation.
A potential lifeline would be to establish a reserve for captured tigers in the south. This need has initiated a switch in focus to Way Kambas National Park.
David is conscious that the national park has been neglected by the trust because it has such a skilled, dedicated team in charge.
Initial research by the trust 13 years ago revealed the diversity of the habitat, home to up to 36 Sumatran tigers, the critically endangered Sumatran rhino, Sumatran elephant, siamang, gibbons and more than 300 bird species.
David has invested £5,000 raised through Dalton zoo to provide 30 new motion sensitive, digital cameras.
The cameras are remotely operated and will be spread throughout the 175,000 hectares to collate scientific documentation about Way Kambas today.
“These pictures will be very exciting,” says David, who today shares these first images with the Evening Mail.
“When we did it we took some pictures of animals that have never been photographed before and we’ve never had the technology before to do video.
“Nobody films Sumatran tigers but us. It’s a massive move forward for the project and hopefully we’ll be able to produce some really useful results. In the last few years we’ve limited our coverage to small areas but it’s a very big place. To walk across it takes a week and a half.
“We need to move back out with our camera coverage everywhere.
“In the first studies it was assumed there were 20 to 28 tigers living constantly in the park. But it’s surrounded by 2.5 million people so the tigers have a heck of a job getting into it to change genetics.
“We need to prove to people we need to move tigers from one area and put them in another to improve genetics.”
Despite the testing forest clearance, David has unwavering faith in the Sumatran Tiger Trust and its vital conservation work.
He adds: “We’ve now been going for 13 years and it really is still a massive focus for the park.”
Sumatran Tiger Trust: http://www.tigertrust.info/sumatran_tiger_home.asp