Tiger Emergency in Sumatra

The year-old Sumatran tiger male, nearly fully grown, wandered out of the old-growth forest in the Habaduan hills near Lake Toba near nightfall, leaving the family’s hidden den on his own for the first time. He glided downhill into the edge habitat of degraded forests and finally the plantations on the lower slopes –first bananas and then rubber. The forest here was different from where he usually helped his mother hunt – more spacious and airy, the walking much easier.

He didn’t mind that at all. So he carried on, his thick, heavy paws leaving imprints in the forest floor in his wake. A couple of village dogs barked in the distance but this didn’t bother him either. He now entered yet another different forest, this one with taller, thicker trees lined up in perfect rows that seemed to go on forever. The normal jungle aromas were gone now, replaced by a stale humidity and the buzzing of flies and mosquitoes. At some point he heard a rooster call out, and, paused to lick his lips. On he went into the night. It would end in tragedy for him.

Two palm oil plantation workers—we’ll call them Sutan and Pahala—had been laying snare traps in the palm oil plantation where they were had been employed for months. They were ethnic Bataks and Christians, so whether their traps snared wild pig or barking deer didn’t matter. Either one could be roasted for a delicious, free supplement to the rice and instant noodles that they subsisted on during the long hot months during which they toiled in the midst of this ocean-sized monoculture plantation. At ages 22 and 24, respectively, they had no memory of this place being anything other than one boundless plantation of trees in even rows, a wholly man-made environment, though sometimes their parents and grandparents would talk of times when it was all jungle and tigers and elephants and rhinoceros called these eastern plains of Sumatra home. That was another era.

They had set the traps in Area 54c of the plantation four days earlier. Wild pig meat could last five days, deer might stay four, and it’s not like they had to worry about predators like tigers or clouded leopards eating their quarry. They walked in the direction of 54c, machetes and bamboo canes in hand, wearing nothing but shorts and flip-flops and smoking cigarettes. Pahala said that what he saw made his heart leap onto his tongue. Lying motionless on its side was a 1.5-meter long tiger with orange fur and black and white stripes. He and Sutan stopped in mid-stride. They thought the cat looked dead, but when they took another step in its direction it sprang to life, wheeling around to face them and emitting a surprisingly weak roar. Despite the fact that they could see that its foot was snared and badly bleeding and that it couldn’t escape its wire trap, they jumped back. Sutan, holding a solid young bamboo cane, acted first. It was all reflex, no contemplation. He swung his bamboo with all his might, clobbering the weak and disoriented tiger that had not eaten or drank anything in nearly five days up the side of the head. The young tiger stumbled back, paws flailing in the air, and then Pahala followed up with three quick blows to the head with his machete. It took a few more whacks from each of them, but soon the tiger was dead.

The ordeal involved some shouting, and it wasn’t long before other plantation workers arrived on the scene. Some were frightened that tigers could be on the prowl in their place of work and happy to see it dead, while others considered it a kind of sin that such a beautiful creature—obviously young and probably of no real threat to anyone—should meet its untimely end in so grisly a fashion. They tied the dead tiger to a bamboo pole and brought it to the nearest village to report the incident to the headman. They weren’t poachers, and no Chinese middleman was called in to bid on the body parts. It was just something that had happened. Children gathered around and those with smartphones took photos of the corpse, and eventually a blanket was brought out to offer the dead tiger some respect.

That there are still to this day undocumented populations of Critically Endangered Sumatran tigers—Indonesia’s last tiger—roaming around in the unprotected hills in the vicinity of Lake Toba is amazing. It is a testament both the resiliency of this sub-species and also to fact that there are still tracks of forested mountains in Sumatra with no protected status at all that contain some of the rarest wildlife on the planet.


Photo credit: Greg McCann

But what happened last month was a tragedy, and it has been happening with greater frequency in this region over the past few years as roads open up previously secluded forests and palm oil and rubber plantations move in. Young tigers need new territory away from their mothers, and so they end up wandering into the plantations where they step in snare traps or encounter humans and are killed. Even adult tigers will follow wild pigs and barking deer into the plantations and meet the same fate. Places like the Hadabuan Hills are becoming, quite literally, islands in the sea of palm oil.

A local grassroots NGO—Sumatra Tiger Rangers—is attempting to deal with this issue, though funding is lacking. Next month, in July, an assorted team of conservationists from Habitat ID and PRCF Foundation as well as other concerned individuals will launch an expedition into the uncharted interior of the Hadabuan Hills to set up camera traps in a bid to determine roughly how many tigers inhabit this landscape. These tigers are not part of the national census, yet they are national treasures because this population, which is obviously a breeding population rather than a relic one, could, if habitat corridors could be established linking this landscape to other nearby forested mountains that contain tigers, offer a critical lifeline for them.

Long gone are the days when “tiger plagues” forced local people to erect spiked palisades around their villages for protection from the great cats, when villagers could watch tigers swim out into rivers and lakes to kill and eat Malayan tapirs that were gliding out into the water to escape the heat, when a forest-clearing plantation coolie or two was carried off by hungry tiger every week. Those days are long gone. We’re in the Anthropocene Era now. But we don’t want to be saying in a decade from now “long gone are the days of the Sumatran tiger, which was the last of Indonesia’s tigers to go.” There is still time to turn the situation around and ensure that Sumatran tigers are roaring love songs into the night forever.

Note: The young tiger seen in the photographs above did walk out of the Hadabuan Hills landscape and into a palm oil plantation where he stepped in a snare, languished for several days, and was then beat to death. The names Pahala and Sutan, however, are made up.

Gregory McCann is the Project Coordinator for Habitat ID and author of the book Called Away by a Mountain Spirit: Journeys to the Green Corridor.