For the sake of human survival, Indonesia can't afford to lose its prized predator
Authorities in Riau province are making their best efforts to prevent the killing of a Sumatran tiger nicknamed Bonita, following the tragic demise of another one two weeks earlier after the big cats ventured into human settlements in North Sumatra.
This incident sends an alarming reminder that if human-tiger conflict persists, Indonesia could soon lose one of its national treasures and the last surviving tiger subspecies it has.
Mulyo Utomo, a spokesman for Riau Natural Resources and Conservation Agency, or BKSDA, told Asia Focus that a team had set up monitoring posts in the area in the hope of capturing and rescuing the tiger this week. It is blamed for fatally mauling Yusri Effendi, a construction worker in Indragiri Hilir district, on March 10. He and two colleagues had hidden earlier for two hours to wait for the tiger to leave but it returned and attacked after they emerged.
Bonita is also blamed for mauling to death Jumiati, a local palm oil plantation worker, in January. She climbed a palm oil tree to escape but the tiger jumped, got hold of her feet and dragged her down.
"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," Utomo said.
Police and military snipers have been included in the team for their expertise to shoot the tiger with tranquiliser darts.
The team was also trying to determine if the tiger blamed for the most recent death was indeed Bonita by identifying its stripes. A camera trap set up by the conservation agency in February captured a tiger with different stripes than Bonita's prowling in the same area.
Another Sumatran tiger was speared to death on March 4 by villagers in Mandailing Natal district of North Sumatra. They grew anxious after a big cat 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 the North Sumatra BKSDA, said conservationists had advised against killing the animal and explained to residents that the creature was endangered and protected by law.
But when conservationists and vets arrived with tranquiliser darts, residents blocked them from reaching the house where the tiger had been spotted. They later received reports that the tiger had been killed. The incident took place just a day after 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 told Asia Focus.
Pictures of the tiger's disembowelled carcass strapped to a wooden bench and hanging from a ceiling went viral on social media.
Siregar said an autopsy 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 the 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 of Forum Harimau Kita (Our Tiger Forum) based in Bogor, West Java.
Rasyid Dongaran, executive director of the Sumatra Rainforest Institute, said local people were also regretful, but they believed that the slain tiger had crossed its customary boundaries by venturing into human settlements.
Rasyid said local people held tigers in high regard as they had coexisted peacefully since ancient times. 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 in 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 a Sumatran tiger is punishable by up to five years imprisonment and maximum fines of 100 million rupiah (US$7,000), 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 turn 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 oil palm 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 kilometres square," he said.
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has studied the tiger landscape in 13 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%, 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 tigers prey on, thus keeping a balance in the ecosystem and conserving many other iconic, threatened species.
In Sumatra, the tiger range overlaps completely with those of the orangutan and rhinoceros, which are also heavily threatened. Keeping the forest landscape intact for tigers 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.
Sunarto, a wildlife ecologist in Riau, told Asia Focus that Indonesia has the ability to prevent the loss of tigers and their habitat but it will require political will and leadership.
"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 said.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the Sumatran tiger as critically endangered, with an estimated 300 to 400 remaining in the Sumatran forest. Indonesia already lost its Javan and Balinese tiger subspecies which went extinct in the 1920s and 1940's respectively.
"It is unfortunate that we can't keep our treasure. The Sumatran tiger is a symbol that we still have an ancient animal in our land, which has evolved and survived over centuries," Rasyid said.