With a BSc in Environment, Economics and Ecology, Sarah has long been fascinated with the challenge of balancing human needs and environmental protection.
In any competition there are winners and losers. But for Tiger Protection & Conservation Unit rangers taking part in this year’s Great Kerinci Snare Sweep, even victory was marred by concern as the results revealed a huge rise in threat to Sumatran tigers from purpose-built snares.
The Great Kerinci Snare Sweep is an annual competition that began in 2011 and offers bonuses to tiger protection rangers in the long-running Fauna & Flora International (FFI) and Kerinci Seblat National Park Sumatran tiger protection and conservation programme.
The snare sweep starts just before (and runs for the duration of) the holy month of Ramadan and offers bonuses to the Tiger Protection and Conservation Units (TPCUs) that find and destroy the most active snares in the national park during forest patrols.
Although the emphasis is on finding and destroying active tiger snares, points are also awarded for destroying snares targeting deer and other smaller mammals, as well as removing snares and mist nets used for capturing wild birds.
Over the course of the five week snare sweep, the six TPCUs destroyed a truly shocking 40 active tiger snares (by comparison, in the whole of 2011 a total of 11 active snares were found on three of the 91 patrols conducted) along with 564 active deer snares and 79 bird snares.
Community team rangers (faces pixelated for their safety) with two of five arrested men. Credit: FFI/KSNP.
They also arrested two deer poachers (who placed a total of 270 snares in a single area) and a further nine men (from another park-edge province and district) on suspicion of poaching helmeted hornbills; these individuals were later released on bail, their high-powered air guns confiscated.
Of the tiger snares destroyed, 80% were found as a result of covert investigations or tip-offs from forest-edge community informants, while more than half the deer snares destroyed were also found as a result of ‘information received.’
Not all was bad news though – the ranger units also made 29 Sumatran tiger presence records during this period – including two units reporting disturbed nights’ sleep due to what the team traditionally describe as ‘an orchestra’ but others might describe as tigers roaring.
As its name suggests, the Sumatran tiger is found only on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, and is the country’s last remaining subspecies.
Although population estimates vary, the most recent research indicates that around 600 of these animals remain in the wild, with numbers in decline due to illegal poaching (primarily for their skin and bones) and through habitat loss for plantations, small holder agriculture and mining.
Tigers are primarily solitary animals that require large territories and a good supply of prey, making them an excellent ‘umbrella species’; not only does their presence (or absence) indicate the overall health of an ecosystem, but conservation efforts that target tigers inevitably benefit other species as well.
In 2011, an island-wide survey (the first of its kind) found that Sumatran tigers were widely distributed across the 1.38 million hectare (5,300 square mile) Kerinci Seblat National Park, highlighting not only the importance of the area for this big cat, but also the significance and magnitude of the TPCUs’ task.
The TPCU ranger units (which consist of members of forest-edge communities contracted through FFI and national park rangers on secondment to the programme) work from base camps to the east and west of the national park. During the course of this year’s snare sweep, TPCUs conducted 26 forest patrols, spending just over 110 days in the forest and walking a distance of well over 200 km – an heroic effort, given that the last three weeks coincided with the holy month of Ramadan, when most of the rangers, as devout Muslims, were fasting (from both food and water) from dawn to dusk.
The Ramadan period sees a surge in poaching in many areas around the national park as the Fast is traditionally broken with special meals – including venison – while poachers are happy to satisfy demand and reap the profit. And because these snares are indiscriminate, they threaten not only deer (key tiger prey) but also other non-target species, including tigers themselves. Hari Raya Idul Fitri, a huge celebration marking the end of the fasting month, only adds to the incentive to poach.
Even snares aimed at other species can trap and kill tigers by accident. Credit: FFI/KSNP.
However by 2010, patrols and other actions had seen continuing year-on-year falls in both tiger and deer poaching in the teams’ focus patrol areas, even during the Ramadan period, as hunters realised there was a strong likelihood of their snares being destroyed (and so either stopped or sought other, safer, sites to hunt).
The Great Kerinci Snare Sweep was established in 2011 as a novel way to incentivise TPCU rangers to seek out remaining deer and other poaching hotspots while rewarding them for working so hard in a period when many try to avoid hard physical labour. But the results from this year’s sweep seem to confirm a worrying trend.
“Over the last year, forest patrols and investigations have recorded a deeply disturbing surge in threat, both in the number of snares found on patrol and in suspected trade in tiger body parts,” says Debbie Martyr (the Kerinci team leader), who believes there is strong evidence that the demand is from overseas, not Indonesia, and is highly organised.
“We know from team investigations that huge sums of money are being brandished to tempt former poachers back into the forest to hunt tigers, while the cartels we believe responsible are very difficult to penetrate. It is deeply alarming that the team has found so many tiger snares in such a short period of time, but hardly surprising given what we have learned in the last 18 months.”
As the TPCU rangers pack up for a well-earned break, plans are underway to hold a ‘council of war’ at the team’s main base camp to discuss the explosion in tiger poaching in and around Kerinci Seblat National Park and how to take action against the organised syndicates behind the problem.
In the meantime, back-up teams remain in place, ready – as always – to respond to emergencies.