Sweeping for tiger snares in Sumatra

High on Sumatra’s Terpanggang Mountain we stumble across a snare made from thick nylon rope. The noose hangs across the trail, designed to catch something around the neck. From its placement on this steep ridge, it is clear that the target animal is the Sumatran serow, a species of increasingly endangered goat-antelope. A thorough survey of the slope reveals eight more snares, but higher up there are probably more.

Local field guide Doni Effendi explains: “Now it is the holy month of Ramadan we can expect to find many more snares.”

This seasonal spike in hunting activity is one trend noted by Tiger Protection and Conservation Units (TPCU) working in Kerinci Seblat National Park.

“Increased snaring activity usually starts two weeks before Ramadan begins and continues throughout the month,” Debbie explains. “Although Ramadan is based around fasting, it also involves feasting – especially at the end of the festival, during what the Indonesians call Hari Raya. Extra meat for this festival often comes from the forest, either from small-scale local trapping, or by a much more concerted effort by those wishing to make a profit.

“Fairly consistently, over the 14 years we’ve been working here, we’ve found that more than half of all deer snares each year were discovered during this six week period.”

Red muntjac. Credit: Jeremy Holden/FFI.

Red muntjac. Credit: Jeremy Holden/FFI.

It was for this reason that Debbie and colleagues at the national park began what is known as ‘The Great Kerinci Snare Sweep’ – a targeted effort by the TPCU teams to remove as many snares as possible from the forest during this period.

“We started The Great Kerinci Snare Sweep in 2012 as an initiative that helps to both protect the wildlife of the Kerinci Seblat National Park and build the capacity of the rangers,” said Debbie. “One of the biggest mistakes that can be made in conservation is to believe there isn’t a problem just because you haven’t found it.

“We knew from past experience that there was a surge in bush meat during this period, but snare poaching records had declined and we were concerned we weren’t finding as many deer snares as we should. It was clear we weren’t always looking in the right places for snares during the Ramadan poaching peak, and that we needed to rethink the way we were working during this period.”

“In discussion with partners from the national park we decided to run a competition: which of our six TPCU ranger units could find the most active snares during the six weeks leading up to Hari Raya?”

New approaches, better results

This wasn’t just an effort to remove snares, but an exercise to inspire the tiger rangers to think in different ways and encourage them to build and extend their information networks among forest edge communities.

“Many of our patrol areas were becoming known to poachers, and we suspected they were looking for safer places to hunt,” Debbie continues. “This meant we had to react by securing better intelligence on where poachers had moved for an improved patrol response.

“The depletion of tiger prey is obviously a direct threat to tiger well-being, but deer snares can also kill tigers – in one instance we lost a tiger (which had only recently been radio-collared) to a nylon snare set for serow.”

Tiger killed in pig snare. Credit: FFI.

This sad picture, taken in 2008, shows a Sumatran tiger killed in a wild pig snare. Credit: FFI.

The initiative proved a great success. In the first year, 383 active snares were removed during the six-week competition (from heavy gauge wire cable snares set for tigers to nylon snares for deer, and string snares set for pheasant and mouse deer), which amounted to 66% of all the active snares destroyed by TPCU patrols in the whole of that year.

Last year the teams used their information networks to detect and destroy a total of 755 active snares, with 290 in just one site – accounting for 68% of all snares destroyed in 2013.

Making poaching unattractive

The competition works on a point system with, naturally, active tiger snares scoring the highest points. The units must produce documentary evidence of their results, and the winning team gets a cash prize. In 2013, the teams did so well that smaller consolation prizes were also awarded to the two runner-up teams.

“This not a religious phenomenon, or just a Muslim problem,” Debbie notes. “In the north of the Indonesian island of Sulawesi the same thing occurs around Christmas. When there are feasts people need extra food – hunters are more than happy to try to meet this demand and secure additional money for their own needs during the holiday period.

“The rangers are sensitive to this and are not going to bust a poor farmer for setting a few deer snares around his farm (although those snares will be removed). We are more interested in the market-based problem, the large-scale, well-organised snaring for profit – which is driven by greed not poverty. This type of wildlife crime is often directly linked to the more serious kinds, like the tiger poaching gangs, which does concern us.”

By consistently removing these snares, the TCPUs are ensuring that this type of hunting is no longer a good investment for poachers.

Loss of snare materials and wasted time setting them soon makes it an unviable and costly pursuit, and in areas where TPCUs have maintained routine or information-led patrols, deer poaching records have declined and the long snare lines that were a common feature in Kerinci’s early years are now rarely encountered.

By removing those nine serow snares from Terpanggang we perhaps saved the life of one of Sumatra’s rarer animals, and by the end of the Great Kerinci Snare Sweep the lives of hundreds of rainforest animals – including tigers – may have been saved, and the teams will be that little bit more savvy on how to save the Sumatran tiger.

Meanwhile hunters looking for easy cash will be will be disappointed.

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