Ending Sumatran Tiger Extinction: Where Do We Begin?

Here’s a riddle for you: What’s orange with black stripes and nearing extinction all over?

Answer: the Sumatran tiger. Named after the island they inhabit in Indonesia, the Sumatran tiger is one of the world’s rarest subspecies, and is nearing extinction at a seriously alarming rate. Listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List — the world’s most comprehensive source of information for the conservation of over 76,000 species — this tiger is one of many species we may see die out within our own lifetimes.

Ending Sumatran Tiger Extinction: Where Do We Begin? | Selva Beat

Shockingly low numbers, combined with the constant threat of human interference, leaves little hope for the survival of this species. According to reports by the WWF and Fauna & Flora International, an estimated 400-500 of these tigers actually exist on Sumatra today, indicating that this Indonesian subspecies of tiger may be headed in the same direction as two other Indonesian tigers: the Bali and Javan tigers, which we saw go extinct in the 1930s and 1980s.

Historically, this decline in numbers is not totally surprising if we consider that an estimated population of the tiger species as a whole reaches less than 3,200 worldwide, of which the Sumatran tiger is one of the five subspecies. Experts like Dr. Ron Tilson (now deceased) and Dr. Michael Hutchins worked for several years to reverse the tiger’s situation, as three of the subspecies already occupy a spot on the IUCN Red List as Critically Endangered. If these creatures are so at-risk of extinction, the question then becomes: Why?

Hutchins and I discussed the causes for the declining numbers of Sumatran tigers and why this decline is occurring at an alarming rate. Hutchins deduces that the population decline for this subspecies funnels down to two key factors: forest loss/fragmentation (habitat loss) and human-wildlife conflict (human interference). Human-wildlife conflict is a direct result of the habitat loss these tigers are experiencing, especially as the forests of the island of Sumatra continue to experience degradation due to past and present fragmentation. As these tigers lose habitat, they are forced into areas which bring them closer to humans, resulting in conflict as humans attempt to 'defend' themselves via hunting and poaching. This is made evident by the road building in the Harapan Rainforest, but also the logging which occurs on Sumatra. Hutchins — who agrees that the road building causes conflict for these tigers — says, “Forests on Sumatra have been in decline for some decades now due to both legal and illegal logging, which is reducing tiger (and elephant) habitat. This also forces tigers out of preferred habitat and increases the probability that they will come into conflict with people. This is primarily the result of tigers preying on domestic animals but an occasional human could be taken as well…roads [also] give poachers and loggers easy access and a mode of transportation, which can result in the loss of wildlife and forest. No matter, when tigers come into conflict with humans, it is the tigers that lose.”

Ending Sumatran Tiger Extinction: Where Do We Begin? | Selva Beat

Perhaps not so surprisingly, Sumatran tigers are also affected by the palm-oil industry just as harshly as orang-utans. In fact, much of the Tesso Nilo National Park in Sumatra — which was originally established in order to provide much needed habitat for the Sumatran tiger — has since been overrun with illegal palm oil plantations; forty-three percent of the Park, to be exact. These plantations and palm-oil productions drain populations at high rates; pushing certain species (such as orang-utans, Sumatran tigers and sun bears) out of their natural habitats. These species are then chased out or killed (by humans), as they have no other choice but to live within the fringe of human territory. The WWF estimates that 90% of the world’s oil palm trees are grown just on islands in Malaysia and Indonesia alone — islands that boast incredibly biodiverse forests. It is hard to ignore the direct correlation between palm oil consumption here and the decline in both forests and species in Southeast Asia. 

Another issue threatening the Sumatran tiger, is the tiger-parts trade. TRAFFIC (the wildlife trade monitoring network) created a series of reports which outline in detail the threat to Sumatran tigers on behalf of the tiger-parts trade. This occurs with other major species worldwide such as lions, elephants and rhinos (aka Africa’s Big Five), as the trade in large-scale species parts is notoriously popular; the ivory trade is a perfect example. In 2008, TRAFFIC released a report which stipulated that the Indonesian laws protecting Sumatran Tigers from the parts-trade were inadequate, and were actually doing little (if nothing) to keep Sumatran tiger parts off the market. WWF also stated that “[Sumatran] tiger body parts—including canine teeth, claws, skin pieces, whiskers and bones—were on sale in 10 percent of the 326 retail outlets surveyed during 2006 in 28 cities and towns across Sumatra. Outlets included goldsmiths, souvenir and traditional Chinese medicine shops, and shops selling antique and precious stones. The survey conservatively estimates that 23 tigers were killed to supply the products seen based on the number of canine teeth on sale.” Numbers for these tigers have continued to drop since this report was released, but some projects (such as those created by Fauna & Flora International) give the species room to breath and recuperate, as these projects seek to patrol and protect the areas where these tigers live from human conflict such as poaching and hunting. Though recent research would argue that the numbers for the Sumatran tiger are increasing, Hutchins and I share the same wonderment as to whether this is actually due to an increase in population, or simply better survey methods which are detecting more of these tigers than previously used methods. We have to ask: The numbers are said to be increasing, but compared to what?

Further, what about all of these IUCN, WWF, TRAFFIC and CITES reports, which provide information on this species but have been essentially unsuccessful in actually saving it? Hutchins muses that, though there are many great scientists and organizations working in Indonesia to save the Sumatran tiger, it is ultimately the fault of the Indonesian government that this species (and other Indonesian species) are dying out: “While there are some excellent scientists and conservationists working in Indonesia, the government (or at least some individuals in positions of power) is known for its high level of corruption, and bringing wrong doers to justice is a daunting task. Unfortunately, the powerful are often connected to the illegal logging and wildlife trade, which has brought them untold riches.” So, what is the ultimate reason for the at-risk status of these tigers, according to Hutchins? “Greed,” he says. “Greed is ultimately what might push the Sumatran tiger to extinction.”

What is the greed for, money? If we consider that so many countries worldwide utilize palm oil (and palm oil derivatives) for mass-produced products such as makeup, food, etc. it is no wonder that Indonesia is making a hefty profit from oil palm production. Pieter Kat — a Trustee at LionAid — puts it perfectly when he states, “Palm oil is cheap. Corporates want to sell their products - chocolate, face creams, pizza, you name it - at maximum profit while using the cheapest ingredients. The public wants to buy the products at the "best price.” So - where are the ‘hidden costs?’” Of course, what many of us do not know when buying makeup or taking home a frozen pizza is where the ingredients in these products come from — and at what expense we have them. It is not only environmental and ecological, but also animal cruelty which allows for these products to be made possible. “A concept,” Pieter says, “that will not penetrate into the public consciousness.” With so much corruption occurring at a government level, what hope do the species of Indonesia (like the Sumatran tiger) really have if we keep buying into an industry which causes such a severe decline in their population?

It is fair to say that, though we live worlds away from the island of Sumatra, and Indonesia — where this cruelty takes place on a daily basis — we are still connected to the plight of the Sumatran tiger, and it’s fellow Indonesian species, face every day due to the palm oil industry. After all, we consume and use products which contain palm oil, in turn contributing to the decline in forests and species like the Sumatran tiger. The question now changes from “Why is the Sumatran tiger going extinct?” to “How can we ensure it doesn’t go extinct?”

Though the world would try to complicate it for you, it really is as simple as avoiding or boycotting the use of products which contain conflict palm oil and palm oil derivatives. It wouldn’t hurt, nor would it be complicated, to live a palm-oil free life, either. With such rapidly declining numbers, it is imperative that we bite the hand that feeds (no tiger pun intended) and stop consuming conflict-driven products made readily available to us. This is just one of the more significant ways we can help save the Sumatran tiger.

WildlifeJacalyn Beales