Tracking the Tigers

The Sumatran Tiger is seriously threatened due to deforestation from paper and palm oil production. A new study finds that unless the Indonesian government acts quickly to protect native tigers, there is little hope of reversing the trend.
On November 2, the Public Library of Science published the first-ever Sumatran-wide survey of the island’s top predator, the Sumatran tiger (Panthera tigris sumatrae). The study, Population Status of a Cryptic Top Predator: An Island-Wide Assessment of Tigers in Sumatran Rainforests, was authored by the Indonesian government, World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Wildlife Conservation Study, Panthera’s Tigers Forever Program, Fauna and Flora International and others.

Researchers surveyed 13,500 kilometers of forest seeking indirect signs of the tiger, such as footprints. They found the least amount of tigers, by far, to exist in the Riau Province, where widespread deforestation for paper products and palm oil has been prevalent in recent decades. A study by WWF in 2008 found that deforestation in the Riau Province alone generated 3.7 gigatons of carbon dioxide from 1982-2007–an annual rate equivalent to over half of Australia’s annual emissions.

“Over the past 25 years, Riau has lost 65% of its natural forest, so it’s unsurprising that tigers are badly affected here,” explains Dr. Sunarto, coordinator of WWF Indonesia’s Tiger and Elephant Conservation Program. “However, they are still roaming and breeding in some areas and we’re increasing our conservation efforts in these areas and trying to restore forest corridors between tiger subpopulations.”

In the early 20th century, over 100,000 tigers were estimated to exist in the wild but their populations have dramatically declined to as few as 3,200, according to the WWF. The Sumatran tiger is the last remaining tiger in Indonesis–the nation’s Bali and Javan tiger species were both declared extinct by the 1980s.

“Sumatra has one of the highest global deforestation rates and the two largest tiger landscapes identified in this study will become highly fragmented if their respective proposed roads networks are approved,” the authors wrote. “Thus, it is vital that the Indonesian government tackles these threats, e.g. through improved land-use planning, if it is to succeed in meeting its ambitious National Tiger Recovery Plan targets of doubling the number of Sumatran tigers by 2022.”