Indonesia's Sumatran tiger threatened by development of last jungle strongholds

Sumatran tiger
Conservationists believe only around 500 Sumatran tigers still exist in the wild.
As politicians encourage development around the Kerinci Seblat National Park, Dr. Julian Bloomer explores how the area's endangered species can be protected

“Hati hati – harimau!”

The lady who had served our rice and vegetable lunch clawed at the air and told us to be careful of the Tiger, as we described our planned route over the Barisan Mountains towards the Kerinci Seblat National Park, in Western Sumatra. The UNESCO World Heritage site contains 1.4 million hectares of protected forests, and is home to over 4,000 plant species and 300 bird species. Many highly endangered animals call Kerinci Seblat their home, including Sumatran elephants, clouded leopards, tapirs and sun bears - and approximately one third of the several hundred remaining Sumatran Tigers endemic to this Indonesian island. Once able to roam across Sumatra, the past couple of centuries has seen the whittling down of the tigers’ habitat to a couple of isolated protected areas.

Approximately 1.75 million people live in the regions bordering the park, posing multiple threats to the tigers. These threats include the encroachment of farming land, illegal logging, clearance for plantations, human-tiger conflict and illegal hunting – all in the name of development, survival or greed. A population of 500 Sumatran rhinoceros has already been completely wiped out through poaching, with direct measures recently introduced to avoid a similar fate for the tiger. These include the establishment of dedicated tiger protection and conservation units, which has apparently helped stabilise and even reverse the downward decline of the tiger population in the park.

With a relatively low population density by Indonesian standards – 96 people per square kilometre - Sumatra’s economy is predominantly based on agriculture, including mono-cropping plantations that produce palm oil and rubber, and the increasing exploitation of its abundant mineral and energy reserves. As the global demand for versatile palm oil has doubled in the past decade, an estimated two million hectares of tropical forest in neighbouring Malaysia and Indonesia – the world’s primary producers – is cleared annually to expand palm oil plantations. Expansion of the island’s infrastructure has been deemed by the authorities as extremely important to any further economic development based on the mining or agricultural industries, and a key aspect of this policy is the upgrading and development of the island’s road network.

When proposals for new roads within the Kerinci Seblat National Park were tabled by local authorities a couple of years ago, local and international NGOs and scientific organisations, worked together and responded with statements condemning the move as illegal under Indonesian national law. Their main objections centred on the fact that such roads would pose a direct threat to endangered species in the park.

This idea of roads as mortality sinks for surrounding wildlife is well established, and the construction of new roads has been implicated in causing displacement of animal populations, disrupting movement patterns and disturbing the boundaries between ecosystems – known as the ‘edge effect’. The opening of access corridors that will promote development, and allow for continued illegal hunting and logging, has also been cited as a major problem. These have all been experienced previously in Sumatra when new roads were constructed through protected environments.

Planning authorities and local politicians have argued that the roads would serve as important additional arteries for isolated communities living near the park, including serving as emergency relief roads in the event of a disaster. However, while the area is prone to earthquakes and very close to the active Gunung Kerinci volcano, the primary motivation is undoubtedly the expected economic development that may result from enhanced access between the Kerinci valley and the regional centres. Many locals appear to support the construction of the roads, and local politicians consistently portray the park and its conservation as being antagonistic to development in the area. Others challenge this stance, asking why, for example, should new roads be constructed when old roads already suffer from poor engineering and lack of maintenance.

Based on past experiences, local communities would appear to have little to gain from the increased large-scale exploitation of the natural resources by the private sector. Meaningful development strategies should focus on allowing local communities living on the park’s edges to pursue sustainable livelihoods through improved land tenure, improved education systems and facilities, and the support of their traditional agroforestry practices, to name a few. Many conservation organisations have recognised the inseparable link between community well being and the protection of biodiversity, and have initiated programmes that seek to focus on this aspect.  In the meantime, while important ground-level protection and conservation projects are proving effective in stabilising the decline of the Sumatran tiger, longer-term threats continue to cast a shadow over the remaining habitat enclaves.

Julian Bloomer and Eleanor Beck are currently cycling around the world and you can follow their progress at: