Tue, 15 Aug 2000

Sumatran tiger, RI's vanishing treasure

By Maria Kegel

JAKARTA (JP): The statistics are disturbing: there are only between 400 and 600 Sumatran tigers left in the wild.

And that was in 1992.

With rampant poaching and a steep decline in the tigers' habitat, their numbers are sure to be lower now, experts contend.

Research has pegged the responsibility for the Sumatran tigers' endangered species status entirely on human activities, and measures are being taken to save them from going the way of the extinct Balinese tiger.

Ligaya Ita Tumbelaka from the Bogor Agricultural University (IPB) aims to heighten people's awareness of the Sumatran tigers' plight. She spoke on behalf of them and the conservation efforts being made to save them at a lecture sponsored by the nonprofit group Sahabat Satwa (Friends of the Zoo) at Ragunan Zoo on Saturday morning.

"A shrinking habitat because of rapid human population growth, forests being cleared for agricultural purposes and illegal hunting are the reasons for the sharp decline in tiger numbers," she said.

The Sumatran tiger could be Indonesia's last living species of tiger. The Balinese tiger became extinct by the turn of the century and the Javan tiger, although officially declared extinct in the 1980s, has reportedly been sighted by several park rangers. A lack of evidence, such as photographs or fur samples, is holding back proper verification of the Javan Tigers' possible existence.

The invasion of the Sumatran tigers' protected habitat by poachers is one of the biggest concerns.

"Poachers kill tigers for their bones, which are used for medicine, but they are mainly killed for their fur."

They are also captured alive to be sold on the black market as pets, she added.

"I hate to say it, but owning a tiger is a status symbol," Ligaya said.

Even though she has received reports on tigers' whereabouts in Bogor and Jakarta, confiscating the privately owned predators is not an easy matter.

"Where can we put them? Sadly, we don't have enough facilities. So all we can do is educate the owners on how to take good care of them for the animals' sake and try to prevent more tigers from being sold."

There is a law prohibiting the selling and buying of endangered species in Indonesia, and Ligaya hopes the government will enforce it in the future. Law No. 5/1990 on the conservation of living resources and their ecosystems carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in jail or a Rp 200 million fine.

"It's human nature. We are just not happy about seeing them in their natural habitat," she said.

"Why do people take them out of the jungle for their own interests?"

Drying up the market by not buying wild animals, their skins or byproducts was one way to give a clear message to poachers to stop catching tigers, she said.


So who should be concerned about the tigers' plight? The answer is all of us.

"Wild animals do their part to keep the ecosystem balanced." People in Jakarta might not feel the impact from the part wildlife plays in their lives, Ligaya said.

"But for villagers who live close to an animal's habitat, you bet there is a direct impact," she said.

For example, if a predator is removed from an area, there is an increase in wild boars, which eat vegetation, including villagers' crops, she said.

A participant at the lecture asked Ligaya if there was a possibility that tigers could be reintroduced into the wild.

She explained that this possibility needed a lot of consideration, such as whether they needed to be returned.

"We have to decide if the animals are ready to go back. If they are in captivity for a long time, they still have their instincts intact, that doesn't go away, I think. But reintroduction is not that easy to do, especially for tigers. We haven't done it and it's not necessary to do at the moment."

They would also need to be screened for diseases before being reintroduced to the wild, she continued.

"One of the purposes of ex-situ conservation is not be for reintroduction to the wild, but for reservation. We need to put them back into the wild, for example, if they become extinct, then we have them in reserve", she said.

Zoos have been mating tigers, but inbreeding has been a concern as they were not keeping track of which tigers were mating which, she pointed out.

"Before 1992 they did keep records, but they were not concerned with which ones were mating. But now we have a different approach with a recording system where we recommend tigers to mate in order to get good genes for future offspring."

Ligaya explained that as of December 1999 there was a total of 235 tigers outside of their habitat, with 77 at 10 zoos in Indonesia, and the other 158 outside the country.

The current conservation program, based in Taman Safari Indonesia in Cisarua, Bogor, has been in effect since 1992 and its key points are keeping stud books, a genome resource bank and employing a tiger rescue team.

She said keeping stud books, a must for managing a small population of tigers, started in 1992.

"Another goal of this measure is to keep the purity of the species and retain a minimum 90 percent of the original ethnic diversity acquired from the wild for at least 100 years," Ligaya said.

In 1995, a genome resource bank was established for preserving frozen tiger sperm.

Ligaya also said the tiger rescue team was working to save tigers, not only from poachers, but from villagers.

"They come out of the jungle, as they are old usually, or they have problems, and approach the village, disturbing the livestock, or attacking people. If they are caught by villagers, they usually kill the tiger. We don't want to have that happen. They can't be killed because of that. Maybe we can still save them, regardless of age, and put them in the captive breeding program."

The rescue team can comprise of local government officials, staff from the nongovernmental group, Perlindungan dan Konservasi Alam (PKA), veterinarians, paramedics and locally recruited volunteers.

She said tigers' DNA needed to be checked as well because there could be a danger of a Sumatran tiger mixing with a Bengal tiger in captive breeding, and preserving the purity of the species was important.

Although Ligaya's specialty is medical primatology and its husbandry, she has worked with tigers since 1992 in the captive breeding program, a collaboration between IPB and Taman Safari.

"I was appointed as the stud bookkeeper for the program and I was happy to do it," she said.

"We can do something, we can help the tiger," she emphasized on the sidelines of the lecture.

"I can't do a lot, but I can share with others what I know through my experience and knowledge, and open some minds to the plight of the tigers. Knowledge of conservation is important," she said.

Ligaya quoted a popular Indonesian proverb: "If you don't know something or someone, how can you love them? So in the case of the tiger, how can we save them?"