When we hear scientists talking about accidental bycatch, we tend to think of turtles entangled in fishing nets, or an albatross impaled on a longline trawler’s fish hook.
A tapir in a tiger snare is the terrestrial equivalent.
It is common knowledge that the illegal trade in tiger bones and body parts poses a grave threat to the remaining populations of Asia’s most iconic big cat. But this grisly business also has a detrimental impact on other species that have the misfortune to be caught in the crossfire.
Kerinci Seblat National Park in Indonesia is one of the last remaining strongholds of the critically endangered Sumatran tiger. It also harbours a globally important population of the endangered Malay tapir, which is down to an estimated 2,500 adults worldwide.
You might imagine that a sizeable, relatively defenceless herbivore would be perfect prey for a voracious apex predator. In fact, fatal encounters appear to be relatively infrequent even though they share the same forest habitat, due to the fact that tigers are largely crepuscular – active at dusk, to you and me – while tapirs are nocturnal.
So far so good for the tapir, but it turns out that hungry carnivores are the least of its problems. Tapirs and tigers tend to favour the same network of trails through the forest, especially in the mountains that comprise much of the park. And it is here that the poachers set their lethal wire snares.
These poachers tend to be opportunists; tigers are their primary target, but if they happen to trap a different species, they won’t hesitate to sell it for bush meat. In the case of the tapir, however, the flesh is widely considered haram – forbidden – by the local Muslim population, and this animal currently has little or no value in the local traditional medicine trade – although skulls and bones may be passed off as those of Sumatran rhinoceros.
A tapir in a tiger snare is, therefore, the worst possible outcome for both poacher and victim, and a fitting, if depressing, symbol of the wastefulness of this indiscriminate hunting method.
To add insult to injury, snares can have a disproportionately serious impact on tapirs, because their relatively slow rate of reproduction makes them less resilient to poaching pressure than a more prolific breeder such as the tiger.