How deforestation and poaching is pushing Sumatran tigers to the brink of extinction

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.

Scientist examine the body of the pregnant tiger after it was killed by a wire snare

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.

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 tranquillizer to sedate it and eventually pull it free.

The tiger was trapped in a dark concrete shaft beneath a shop in Sumatra (Supplied: BBKSDA Riau)

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.”

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.

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