Four days into what should have been a routine camera trap-setting expedition, one of the joint Kerinci Seblat National Park and Fauna & Flora International (FFI) tiger monitoring teams had come face to face with a wild Sumatran tiger three times. We all wondered what the rest of the trip would have in store…
12th June, 7.30 pm: The team broke camp and set off to continue setting camera traps; the day was grey and overcast, drizzly with heavy mists as if to encourage us to stay in camp. Today was going to be hard work as everybody was tired – nobody slept well last night – and we were anxious that the tiger might still be close. It sapped the energy and the usual enthusiasm.
We repeatedly encountered tiger pug marks on the trail, each of which were measured and photographed. And then, finally, the owner of the pug marks materialised.
It was just after 8 am and we were only 400m from what had been our camp. The tiger was less than 20 metres from me. I was alone. The rest of the team had walked on ahead as I had stopped to get some more photographs of the pug marks. I tried to drive the tiger away, to scare it off with vigorous gestures and shouting, but the king of the jungle just stood there, unmoved, looking at me. It had followed us from camp.
I retreated from the tiger, moving backwards, step by step, carefully so I was always facing it. The tiger just stood there, watching me. It didn’t move, it made no sound. It just watched, but it also made no move that said it was going to attack.
Eventually, I got to a bend in the trail and was momentarily out of sight of the tiger. Finally I was able to turn around and run – nobody has ever run faster – and joined the team further along the ridge.
There is a golden rule in situations like this: ‘You must never run and never turn your back. Move slowly and hold your nerve.’ I was telling myself all that as I tried not to panic, until I knew it was safe to turn round and catch up with the others, and to tell them we had been followed by last night’s tiger.
Unfortunately, when the rest of the team saw me racing towards them, they began running too! That didn’t last too long though – this is Kerinci Seblat and we were running up a very steep hill. It slowed us down until we were able to take a breath and realise that running away was not a solution.
The tiger was still following us. Keeping its distance, mainly concealed in the forest’s understorey. Whenever we saw movement in the undergrowth, branches were thrown to make it clear that we really would prefer it to keep a distance. It remained very still and quiet, and we decided that we would leave the forest by the fastest route possible.
Hambali, the most senior member of the team, with 16 years’ field experience in tiger monitoring and conservation, was the most familiar with this particular area and so he took the lead. Deco Satria, the youngest member of the camera trapping team – and with a heavily pregnant wife – took second place, then I followed, still leader on this particular transect and therefore responsible for everybody’s safety.
Were we frightened? Yes, obviously. Did we think that somebody might get killed? Yes, quite possibly. You could see these thoughts across everybody’s faces and in their posture. In all our years of experience in the field, none of us had experienced something quite like this.
And so we set off. Moving as swiftly as possible, pausing only to catch our breath when absolutely necessary. Then we took a rest stop and yes, once again, we saw the tiger, this time perhaps 60-70 metres away, standing perfectly still. It had moved ahead and was now on the ridge trail in front of us. But this time we were prepared. We threw branches and pieces of wood and stones and advanced on the tiger, as one team, step by step, closer and closer until, about 30 metres away, the tiger retreated down the side of the hill. We continued our own retreat out of the forest, all of us in a state of high alert because we could not know from where, when or if at all the tiger would reappear.
9.56 am: The sun was coming through the mist and clouds and, after a long, steep climb, we paused for another brief rest stop. Minutes later, the tiger reappeared from behind a large tree. This time it was no more than five metres away. We waved the sticks we had prepared for this eventuality and the tiger leapt back behind the tree and out of sight.
We quickly moved on and continued to walk, staying on high alert. We took a number of quick rest stops, but the tiger did not reappear and, finally, at 3.10 pm, after around eight hours of walking, we reached farmland at the edge of the forest and took the decision to rest, for what was left of the night, before walking on to the nearest road to be picked up.
Why did this apex predator behave like this? Why did it repeatedly allow itself to be seen? Sumatran tiger are famously shy – it’s why so few people ever see one. So why did it follow us like this? It was almost as if it had been trying to greet us.
I don’t know the answers. I don’t think we will ever know. But I do know that we will always remember this trip. It is as if a memory has been engraved on our hearts, these encounters with a tiger. It has made us stronger. Instead of being frightened witless and running from the battlefield, we were strengthened in our commitment as guardians of Sumatran tigers and their conservation.
Catch up on Part I of ‘Tiger encounter’ here.