The Sumatran tiger is in danger of becoming the first major mammal to become extinct in the 21st century, as villagers on the Indonesian island fight a deadly war with the magnificent but ferocious predator.
At least four tigers, and nine people, have been killed in the past month alone, as the shrinking of Sumatra’s already depleted forests brings an increase in attacks on farmers, hunters and illegal loggers.
With fewer than 400 of the creatures estimated to be left in the wild, the Sumatran tiger is classified as critically endangered, the most vulnerable of all the six surviving tiger subspecies.
The fact that several victims of the recent attacks have been devoured by the tigers, which usually have little taste for human flesh, suggests how hungry and desperate they are becoming, as economic exploitation of their habitat confines them in ever smaller and more impoverished patches of jungle.
As the tiger attacks become more common, conservationists are hurrying to trap man-eating animals humanely, and release them away from human habitation, before terrified villagers hunt them down and kill them.
“As people encroach into tiger habitat, it’s creating a crisis situation and further threatening this critically endangered subspecies,” Ian Kosasih of the conservation group WWF, said. “In light of these killings, officials have got to make public safety a top concern and put a stop to illegal clearance of forests in Sumatra.”
According to the Indonesian government, between five and ten tigers are killed on average every year, but the scale of the slaughter in 2009 is on course to be higher than ever. A male tiger was speared to death a week ago after attacking a security guard on a palm oil plantation in the Indragiri Hilir area of Jambi province, the fourth animal to be killed this year.
Three young tigers were killed in February in neighbouring Riau province, after wandering into a village in search of food. Another Sumatran tiger was successfully trapped by conservationists.
But at least six people have been mauled to death and several more attacked and injured. In the grisliest attack, a 50-year-old man named Suyud was killed in his hut, which he shared with his 21-year-old son Imam Mujianto. The young man was consumed by the creature, which ate his brain, heart and liver, according to local reports.
“The shocking news that six people have been killed in less than one month is an extremely sad illustration of how bad the situation has become in Jambi,” said Didy Wurjanto, the head of the Jambi province Nature Conservancy Agency. “It’s a signal that we need to get serious about protecting natural forest and giving tigers their space.”
The number of tigers across the world has declined by 95 per cent in the past century, and three subspecies have become extinct, including the two others native to Indonesia – the Bali tiger and the Javan tiger, which was seen in the wild as late as the 1970s.
Poachers hunt them for their skins and other body parts which are a prized ingredient in traditional Asian medicines – the bodies of the animals killed in Sumatra in the past weeks quickly disappeared, and a tiger corpse is worth $3,200 (£2,200), a small fortune for an Indonesian villager.
But there is also less and less room for tigers, who require large areas in which to prowl, hunt and mate. Road building, farming, the timber industry and, particularly in Sumatra, the clearing of jungle to create lucrative palm oil plantations, is driving tigers into smaller islands of natural forest.
Sumatra’s lowland forests are shrinking at the rate of 2,700 sq km every year, an area larger than Luxemburg.
“You can’t expect tigers to become vegetarians,” Nurazman Nurdin of the Nature Conservation Agency told AP. “They need meat and humans trespassing their territory are relatively easy targets.”
Asia Editor Richard Lloyd Parry reports for The Times
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