Thursday, May 31, 2012

My Friend Got Pinched! Tiger Poaching at Kerinci Seblat National Park

Camera trap photo from Flora and Fauna International;
photo by Matt Linkie
A couple of weeks ago the buzz around here was that two village heads from the Serampas region (which I wrote about  here, here, and here) were apprehended by the Kerinci district police along the footpath that runs 20 kilometers from Renah Kemumu village to Lempur town.  The village heads were arrested along with a middle-aged man (1) because they were in possession of a tiger skin which had presumably been killed in Serampas and which they allegedly had intended to sell.  I was a bit surprised and disappointed by this news, because one of the suspects, the head of Renah Kemumu village, is a friend of mine and has on occasion stopped by my house to hang out when he's in town.  This incident, while unfortunate, is an all too common occurrence in and around Kerinci Seblat National Park, one of the last remaining habitats for the critically endangered Sumatran tiger (Panthera tigris sumatrae).

The Sumatran Tiger

Tiger range map from Sumatran Tiger Trust.
Tigers used to be found on several Indonesian islands, but since the extinction of the Bali tiger (1940s) and the Javan tiger (1970s) the Sumatran tiger is the only one of the three related subspecies remaining.  Though the range of the Sumatran tiger once included virtually the entire island, there are only a few remaining habitats left, and all of those face a variety of challenges that directly threaten the Sumatran tiger's continued existence.  The largest of these pockets is Kerinci Seblat National Park (KSNP, Taman Nasional Kerinci Seblat, TNKS; at 1.38 million hectares or 5300 square miles the largest national park on Sumatra and the second largest terrestrial protected area in all of Indonesia), where I'm currently doing my doctoral dissertation research.  These protected areas among the only remaining large forested areas on Sumatra, though just a few decades ago the island was essentially covered with forest.  Large-scale agricultural conversion, land clearing for settlement, and industrial plantations have eliminated huge swaths of habitat.  Since Sumatran tigers are for the most part solitary animals a significant amount of space is required to maintain viable populations.  Though the numbers vary, estimates as to the range of an individual tiger's territory are as high as 100 square kilometers.  Estimates also vary widely as to the current number of tigers, ranging from the low 300s to around 1000, but even on the high end the Sumatran tiger is in trouble.  This variability is because it is so hard to estimate the number of tigers in a given area.  Most "censuses" use camera traps to photograph tigers in a representative area, and then attempt to extrapolate the findings to a wider habitat area.  However models derived from these methods make assumptions and are not able to take into consideration all the myriad variables that affect tiger distribution. 

The Tiger Trade

Tiger skin photo from Sumatran Tiger Trust.
Though habitat destruction is the main cause for the dramatic decline in tiger numbers, tiger poaching is the main concern in Sumatra's protected areas.  The nature of poaching makes it difficult to gauge the scale of the problem; since all aspects of the tiger trade are illegal there are no records kept.  Poaching is difficult to detect, and only in a few protected areas (including KSNP) have authorities been able to build capacity to detect poachers and tackle the problem.  It used to be that many poached tigers were taken to fill "orders" placed by civil servants, most commonly policemen or members of the military or to be used as gifts to or by politicians.  Folks desirous of promotions would use the tiger skins as gifts for superiors as a way to "grease the wheels".  A friend of mine doing police-related research on Java once commented to me that (s)he was amazed at how often tiger skins were to be found in the homes of high-ranking officials.  It's been estimated that several decades ago, 80% of poached skins were for the domestic market and 20% were exported.  Now, though, demand has shifted, and a source close to the issue told me that it's likely that 80% of skins are exported.  Now the biggest destination for skins and bone is said to be Vietnam, but this is difficult to prove.  Tiger skins move through a network of brokers sometimes changing hands 5-6 times before they arrive at their final destination.  Investigators are sometimes able to estimate the number of middlemen from the final price, as each step entails a 10-20% "cut" for the broker.  Those that have poached tigers previously likely have established contacts and know the rules of the game, but "novice" poachers can expect to make a lot less.  Likewise, those without a direct line to bone/skin "bosses" have to go through brokers, but they often have unrealistically high expectations of the prices they can get.  A friend that works in tiger protection told me that end-market values for skin and bones that appear in media reports (for instance, a newspaper story that reports the final price for a tiger skin at, say, US$15,000) leads some would-be poachers to believe they can get close to that for a tiger, but the reality is that the price gets inflated along the extended chain of buying and selling.  This dynamic perhaps contributes to poaching.  Although it is hard to say with any certainty how much a poached tiger skin will bring (this depends on a lot of things; sex, size, age, condition and the experience and knowledge of the market on the part of the buyer), a villager may hope to net around US$1,000 for a skin plus $300-350 more for the bones.  This is, of course negotiable, as some village poachers may be dependent on the middlemen to find a buyer.

Boar snares (6).  I lifted this photo without permission from
a flickr page associated with this site.  
It's not just tiger skins that are valuable, though.  Their bones and certain body parts are believed by some to have medicinal or magic powers.  At the export level bones and skins may be marketed through a different network, though, and it is thought that nearly 100% are exported (2).  Again it is difficult to get precise information on the tiger trade since bones, skins, and other parts are covered under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) and so the trade is entirely illegal and undercover, but it is suspected that some if not most of the trading is coordinated by cartels based in Southeast Asia.

Snared tiger photo from here.  When tigers get their
paws caught in snares the paw often must be
amputated.  If the operation isn't done quickly enough
there is a high risk of infection which can lead to the
death of the tiger.  Sometimes post-operation tigers
can be reintroduced into the wild, sometimes not.  
Although poaching is a problem at KSNP, conservationists have had a higher level of success when compared to other protected areas and there is some basis for hope here.  When directed tiger enforcement began here, the park's administrators were not aware of the scale of the problem, and so tiger conservation was not a priority.  It was soon determined that tiger poaching was indeed a prime concern, but since regular and routine patrols have begun year by uear the percentage of patrols recording active snare poaching has continued to decrease.  Still in that time that I've been working here (around 9 months) there have been more than 8 documented cases of tigers being killed or snared (3).  Though some tigers are killed by villagers as the result of tiger attacks (4), it is known that several have been poached over the past year.  Specialist forest police patrolling the park still on occasion encounter tiger snares, which indicates that poaching is for the most part done with intent rather than by opportunistic villagers.  Again, estimates vary widely regarding the number of tigers in the park; the local paper just last week printed a story indicating 166 tigers remain, but other experts suggest there could be twice that many.  But if you consider that possibly 5% of the extant population has been lost over the past year alone (this is probably a low-end estimate given that there are likely tigers poached/killed without being discovered/reported), it is clear that the Sumatran tiger is facing a hard struggle for survival. 

As I've mentioned in the past, it's my responsibility as a researcher to maintain neutrality on pretty much all the issues I'm investigating.  I understand the concerns of conservationists, many from "developed" countries who lament the loss of creatures like the Sumatran tiger.  However, I also hear stories from villagers who see, with reason, wildlife as a threat to their way of life.  Their encounters with wildlife like tigers and elephants are generally confrontational in nature (5).  I find it impossible to maintain neutrality when discussing poaching, though.  There is no way it can be justified.  I also get a little sad when I imagine myself telling my children "we used to have these things called tigers...."


(1) Who is being charged as the actual poacher

(2) There are a couple of minor exceptions to this.  Certain body parts, like whiskers, are for the domestic market.

(3)  This figure does not include incidence happening just outside the park in protection forests (hutan lindung)

(4)  Most of these attacks occur in places where humans have encroached in tiger habitat or where there has been very heavy poaching of tiger prey species.  In/around KSNP there have been only 3 documented attacks on people since 2008.  In one case that I am aware of, an illegal logger was attacked by a tiger deep within the national park.  In another recent case a villager claimed that a tiger attacked him but the investigation showed that this was not the case. 

(5)  Again, the fact is that most conflict is due to habitat destruction.

(6)  The snares in the photo are actually neck snares, but tigers sometimes get caught in them.  Poachers prefer foot hold snares because neck snares can damage the skin.


Many thanks to my friends that work hard in the field and put themselves in danger to protect tigers, mitigate human/wildlife conflicts, and increase awareness.  


  1. "I also get a little sad when I imagine myself telling my children "we used to have these things called tigers....'" Sadly, I think of the same thing when I hear of endangered animals. These are creatures of true power and beauty and it will forever leave me pondering, "Who has the balls to mess with these animals, let alone KILL them?!". The dollar, in whatever culture, has gotten a hold of one too many individuals that think that money overpowers wiping out whole populations of wildlife.

  2. Hunting and killing animals for sport or financial gains is a horrible act against nature and really angers me. There might have been a time in the past when some of these animals were a danger to the human populations trying to survive in a wilderness habitat and needed to be killed to protect the family but those times are long gone and there is no reason today to bring harm to these beautiful creatures. Most of these animals live in a protected area and the killers are illegally and criminally doing crimes that should have higher punishment. But these wild animals are not the only ones suffering. I cry when I watch the poor domestic animals shown in the Humane Society commercials. Why are we such a heartless species and maybe that is the reason why we are being tested during this time of natural disasters to see if we deserve to co-exist on this planet.

  3. It hurt to read that 166 Sumatran Tigers left on the island of Sumatra becasue the tiger has always been my favorite big cat and like you said it is going to be wierd showing my kids google pictures of my favorite oragne and black striped cat. Although they are a danger to villagers, there is a big difference between killing them for the safty of ones family and poaching them for money. But in 2013 there are ways to protect yourself from attacks without harming the tiger. How do you stop a world wide job such as Poaching when it orginates from mankinds instinct and first way of servival?
    -Mr. Blak

  4. There has long been a correlation between something becoming illegal and an increase in demand for the object. Besides their pelt and bones, tiger meat is also highly valued. Of course, I cannot condone poaching for personal gain. Like mentioned in the article, perhaps killing a tiger purely out of self-defence may be acceptable, but that does not seem to be the case with the majority of the killings.