Why Indonesia Must Look to India to Save the Sumatran Tiger

A Sumatran tiger drinks from the pond in its enclosure at the zoo in Stuttgart, southern Germany, on July 3, 2013. (AFP Photo/DPA/Marijan Murat)

A Sumatran tiger drinks from the pond in its enclosure at the zoo in Stuttgart, southern Germany, on July 3, 2013. (AFP Photo/DPA/Marijan Murat)

Indonesia has the dubious distinction of having seen two of its tiger species fall into extinction and, as a leading environmental group says the Sumatran tiger will soon follow suit if urgent action is not taken, the government should look to India if it wants to be seen as a country serious about protecting its endangered species.

In the 1970s, there were around 1,000 Sumatran tigers, but estimates today indicate there are fewer than 400 living in the wild. By contrast, no more than 300 wild Bengal tigers were recorded in 1973, but the latest data show the species has been revived to around 1,500.

The process was initiated by Indian Prime Minister Indira Ghandi after a colorful campaign by environmentalists warned of the Bengal tiger’s imminent extinction.

Ghandi responded with a succession of measures, including bans on poaching and trading in tiger skins, while creating a regulatory framework to foster the protection of the Bengal tiger, which, at the time, was in even greater danger of extinction than its Sumatran counterpart.

Success at preventing the Bengal tiger’s demise, and increasing their number, resulted from a clearly defined political commitment to protect the animal’s habitat and punish poachers, underpinned by public-awareness campaigns.

Kirana, a female Sumatran tiger nuzzles one of her month-old cubs in their enclosure at Chester Zoo in northern England July 1, 2013.  (Reuters Photo/Phil Noble)

Kirana, a female Sumatran tiger nuzzles one of her month-old cubs in their enclosure at Chester Zoo in northern England July 1, 2013. (Reuters Photo/Phil Noble)

Indonesia’s conservation efforts fall short

Indonesia’s efforts to protect the Sumatran tiger began in 1973 with the ratification of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), an agreement that required signatories to create a special authority that dealt specifically with issues concerning endangered animals and plants.

The number of Sumatran tigers has, however, continued to weaken — a consequence of unchecked deforestation and patchy enforcement against poachers.

Indonesia has already lost two species of tigers to poachers — the last Javan and Bali tigers were seen in the 1970s and 1940s respectively.

“Generally, tigers reproduce easily and can give birth to two or three cubs each year,” said Aditya Bayunanda, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Indonesia’s Global Forest and Trade Network National Coordinator.

“Hence, the problem does not lie in the reproductive cycle, but ensuring a safe environment for them to live in. The highest fatality rate for tigers is from poaching and getting snared. Not to mention deforestation, which destroys their habitat.”

From 1985 to 1997, an estimated 67,000 square kilometers of forest were lost in Sumatra. Forest conversion has cut into protected areas. National parks have become islands, effectively marooning the tigers.

The isolation of parklands makes it harder for tigers to survive as their prey is depleted more quickly.

This contrasts sharply with the case of the Bengal tigers, where the governments of Nepal and India successfully reconnected 11 areas through wildlife corridors in 2000.

[quote author="Sunarto, WWF-Indonesia" ]If the situation doesn’t improve and effective measures are not taken by the government, it’s possible that these tigers will be extinct within 10 years[/quote]

Sumatran tigers can still be found in several provinces on Indonesia’s largest island, with most thought to be in Gunung Leuser and Kerinci Seblat national parks.

But cutting down trees to make way for agriculture, plantations and settlements has encroached on the tigers’ habitat and forced them to enter villages in search of food, consequently increasing the occurrences of human-tiger conflicts.

People are, understandably, slow to hesitate to kill tigers when contact does occur, but anecdotal evidence indicates that maulings have caused communities to begin hunting tigers as a preemptive measure.

“The situation in India is different because of cultural and religious beliefs toward animal treatment,” Sunarto, the Tiger Conservation Coordinator at World Wildlife Fund Indonesia, told the Jakarta Globe. “To them, animals are not just animals, they hold spiritual importance.”

Raising awareness is a fundamental precursor to any concerted conservation effort, the WWF says.

“People need to be more aware and critical of their consumer choices as the problem lies deeper than others can even imagine,” Sunarto said. “For example, choosing where one’s palm oil comes from can influence the situation as companies often clear forests and destroy the tigers’ habitat to make way for palm-oil plantations.”

The Indonesian government has taken steps to address the regulatory deficit.

“They’ve set up conservation areas with rules and regulations to prevent illegal poaching,” Sunarto said. “Measures have also been taken to safeguard the tigers’ habitat by stationing rangers to protect these creatures from poachers.

However, efforts to conserve the Bengal tiger have been more successful than those for the Sumatran tiger because India and its partners in conservation are more committed to the cause,” Sunarto said. “Indonesia’s government needs to update its laws and regulations, as well as effectively enforce these rules.”

The Ministry of Forestry has formed partnerships with palm and paper companies responsible for eroding tiger habitats. A recent report by Eyes on the Forest, a coalition of environmental NGOs in Riau, said such partnerships amounted to little more than “greenwashing,” and that behavior had not changed.

“The current laws and regulations in place deal with illegal conversion of forests harshly. However, there is still plenty of room for improvement,” Aditya said. “If the government enforced these laws more effectively, the tiger population would benefit greatly from it.”

Indonesian officers show a Sumatran tiger skin (L) and Leopard skin (R) in Jakarta, Indonesia, on August 15, 2012. (JG Photo/Safir Makki)

Indonesian officers show a Sumatran tiger skin (L) and Leopard skin (R) in Jakarta, Indonesia, on August 15, 2012. (JG Photo/Safir Makki)

Enforcement lacks teeth

A December, 2012, case involving a tiger-skin broker in Pekanbaru came to light when a man was found with nine tiger skins in his possession, some of which, he admitted, belonged to the National Resource Conservation Center (BKSDA).

The media had limited access to the details of the trial, but the penalty handed down was short of severe: the man was sentenced to three months in prison.

WWF lobbied for a sentence more commensurate with the seriousness of the matter, but people familiar with the case said the defendant benefited from his connections.

The experience of the Bengal tiger is instructive, but if Indonesia is to earn its stripes as a country serious about protecting its endangered species, it does not have long to act — and the warning of what will happen if no action is taken is unambiguous.

“If the situation doesn’t improve and effective measures are not taken by the government,” Sunarto said, “it’s possible that these tigers will be extinct within 10 years.”