Sumatra’s Tiger Saviours

We are constantly bombarded by bad news about tigers. Of the nine recognised subspecies, three are already extinct, and two more are on the threshold. Across their range, tiger numbers are declining.

In Indochina, despite much time spent in the most remote areas, I haven’t seen a tiger pug mark since 2007. It is a terrible indictment of human greed, and something that will be looked back upon by future generations with a sense of accusation. But during my latest trip to Indonesia, I was surprised by a little bit of good news: I learned that in some places in Sumatra tiger numbers are, against all the odds, actually increasing.

I first heard this from Matt Linkie, Aceh Programme Manager, while sitting at the forest edge in Ulu Masen, Aceh; it was something I would hear again a week later from Debbie Martyr, Programme Manager in Kerinci Seblat National Park in central Sumatra.

Sunrise over the Kerinci Valley (Credit: Jeremy Holden/FFI)

Sunrise over the Kerinci Valley (photo credit: Jeremy Holden/FFI).

Sumatra has always been a place with lots of tigers. Early travellers’ reports tell of villages along the west coast that were stockaded to keep tigers out at night. During the time I spent there, between 1994 and 2005, it was an everyday occurrence to find tiger tracks, and I occasionally even saw tigers on forest trails. But I also found snares set for tigers and heard many stories of poachers targeting tigers.

It was the discovery that tigers in Sumatra were facing heavy and almost unchallenged hunting that led Debbie Martyr in 2000 to establish the first Fauna & Flora International (FFI) project dedicated to tiger protection.

It is reasonable to expect that in 12 years there might be some measurable success. But the important thing to remember is that the pressure on tigers has not decreased – quite the opposite, in fact. Increased affluence in the Asian states that value tiger parts for use in traditional medicines has made tigers a more commercially valuable commodity than ever before. Plus the drive to destroy forests for their timber, or to make way for plantation crops, has also robbed tigers of their habitat.

Given these threats, and the fact that tigers are a top predator living in our midst, it seems miraculous that we still have tigers anywhere.

The choice to conserve

It is undoubtedly true to say that the only reason tigers still exist is due to concerted efforts to conserve them. This is especially apparent in FFI’s dedicated tiger protection initiatives, such as the Sumatran projects led by Debbie in Kerinci, and by Matt in Aceh.

Although FFI has been active in Aceh since 1998, the current Aceh programme is fairly recent. Before the devastating tsunami in late 2004 the area was closed to foreigners due to civil conflict. Although home to some extensive rainforest, there was no data on how important these areas were for tigers or how tigers were fairing.

Post-conflict situations can be an interesting time for conservation. Early patrols found plenty of evidence of hunting, but this was often because ex-combatants or displaced peoples had no other way of surviving. A large part of the Aceh approach has been to try and mitigate this.

Matt told me the story of his best tiger protection ranger Norman Bin Cut whom he first encountered deep in the forest drying a rack of sambar meat – a large type of deer that is a key tiger prey species. “He didn’t want to be hunting illegally,” Matt explained, “but he had no alternative. We offered him a position as a tiger ranger and he has absolutely excelled. Now he is helping to protect the things he once helped to destroy.”

Making tiger poaching a risky business

In Kerinci, over a decade of dedicated work has created a complex and deep-rooted protection team that has evolved into a formidable force against both tiger poaching and associated threats.

Working closely with the national park staff, the forestry department (KSDA), the police, and local communities, the teams have now made tiger poaching a risky business.

Sumatran tiger in the wild (photo credit: Matt Linkie/FFI).

Debbie told me that while sitting in a restaurant in the west Sumatran regional capital of Padang she overheard two tiger traders talking by phone to their boss. “You don’t understand,” they said, “it is not like it was before. People are getting arrested now.”

Furthermore, monitoring work with camera traps is now showing that tigers in the park are not only holding their ground, but in some areas beginning to increase in number.

The reason for this is the Tiger Protection and Conservation Units (TPCUs) that Debbie established. They are not just arresting people for poaching tigers; they are getting there before the tigers are poached.

Intelligence gathered through long-term undercover surveillance often reveals where poachers are operating before any tigers are caught. (The secretive nature of this work is the reason this blog is not illustrated with any photographs of the team members).

Following up a lead last month, two TPCU teams combed a remote area in the south of the park and removed eight steel cable snares. Unfortunately they were too late to stop a tiger getting trapped. A tigress had stepped into a snare and was discovered by the teams. She was still alive and, in an heroic effort, they rescued her and carried her out of the forest on a stretcher.

But this is tough work for a single woman in remote Sumatra, and during one late night conversation Debbie let her guard down. “I try to be gung-ho. I try to make it look easy and fun…but it isn’t, it’s hard.”

Enduring commitment in tough conditions

Debbie’s ageing jeep looks the worse for wear, but like its owner, it has shown terrific stamina. Now the road is visible through holes in the rusted floor and one of the rear wings is completely devoid of paint (an injury inflicted by a falling garage roof during an earthquake).

Dense forest in Kerinci Seblat National Park (photo credit: Jeremy Holden/FFI).

When I mention she could do with a new one I am quickly corrected. Even this battered vehicle is part of Debbie’s conservation philosophy. She tries not to live like a privileged ex-pat: eschewing the normal ex-pat insistence on comfort is all part of keeping this project real. “I want to live as everyone around me lives,” she says. “I want this programme to be an Indonesian thing that can continue after I am gone. I want it to be sustainable.”

This was a sentiment shared by Matt. “It is all about teamwork,” he said. “It is what FFI does best: building up local capacity to eventually allow the Indonesians to deal with these problems themselves.”

Not for the first time, it occurred to me that the most effective conservation tool we have is not environmental laws or protected area systems, but committed individuals like Debbie and Matt who have dedicated their lives to building this capacity and giving meaning and reality to the fight to save our biodiversity.