Vladik: An Amur Tiger Returns to the Wild
The Tiger Protection Unit was patrolling Rimbang Baling Wildlife Reserve on a day like any other when Samsu, the unit’s lead patroller, stopped abruptly.
Amongst a scattering of tennis ball-sized seeds, a red and white fleshy plant bloomed out of the rainforest floor, measuring half a metre wide.
Samsu chanced upon a new discovery for Rimbang Baling during a forest survey in February 2013 – a find that he will never forget. Nicknamed “Cendawan Muka Rimau” or White Red Rafflesia Flower, this particular species is found only in Sumatra, Sarawak and parts of Malaysia’s Peninsula Strait. @WWF-Indonesia
Samsu knew immediately it was a ground-breaking find. The Rafflesia is the world’s largest flower – distinct, rare and only found in parts of Southeast Asia.
While it is known to exist sporadically throughout the islands of Indonesia, this was the first time it had been seen in Rimbang Baling – providing further evidence that Rimbang Baling is one of Sumatra’s most biodiverse hotspots – adding to a long list of reasons to strengthen the protection of this unique, but severely threatened rainforest.
Spanning 140,000 acres in central Sumatra, the forests of Rimbang Baling are home to some of the world’s rarest plant and animal species.
As part of the UNESCO-recognised Tropical Rainforest Heritage of Sumatra, Rimbang Baling forms an integral part of the last stand for the critically endangered Sumatran tiger, along with 170 species of birds and 50 species of mammals such as tapirs, sun bears, lemurs and clouded leopards.
In 2010, Indonesia, along with the twelve other tiger range countries, committed to one of the most ambitious conservation goals ever set; Tx2 – to double wild tiger numbers by the year 2022.
Rather than focusing on “saving” tigers at a site or country level, Tx2 uses a strategic, long-term approach – increasing protection where the tigers are currently, maintaining wildlife corridors and connectivity between areas and then boosting resources and protection for where tigers can be in the future, once their numbers have increased.
“It is really important for us to at least stabilise – and then recover – Sumatra’s tigers to a level that is secure.” Sunarto Sunarto, Wildlife and Landscape Ecologist, WWF-Indonesia.
Play the video below to see what’s emerging from the rainforest’s thick undergrowth!
Sunarto works closely with Samsu to manage the landscape for the benefit of both wildlife and humans.
Tx2 sites have huge potential for tiger recovery – but have been held back due to lack of investment. To address this gap, each Tx2 site owns a thorough plan for investment that outlines the funding, management, social and political lobbying and engagement needed to succeed.
Rimbang Baling is Indonesia’s Tx2 site.
Sitting on a low stonewall at the Tiger Protection Unit camp, with sounds of the forest reverberating around us, Samsu began sharing how his story of how he came to be a tiger protector in Indonesia’s Tx2 site.
Samsu has an intimate knowledge of the forest. Not at all surprising – having lived in Gama Village his entire life, one of thirteen villages bordering Rimbang Baling Wildlife Reserve; and with over a decade’s experience leading patrols in the Tiger Protection Unit.
Samsu’s work helps to tackle the two most severe threats that endanger the Sumatran tiger’s future: poaching and habitat loss.
Yet it hasn’t always been this way.
Throughout his twenties, Samsu worked for an acacia concession. His job was to cut down the trees and harvest the timber, producing pulp and paper for a large international company.
At the time, he never realised – or thought about – the effects of deforestation. With two young children, his sole concern was to work and to provide for his family.
Despite its globally recognised status as a World Heritage Site, the tropical rainforests of Sumatra continue to come under severe threats from poaching and habitat destruction. Many, like Samsu in his twenties, gain employment from agricultural concessions in acacia, rubber and palm plantations, that lead to further deforestation and habitat destruction in Sumatra.
What’s worse is that, these plantations open up access into previously untouched forests, making it easier for wildlife crime networks to expand and for poachers to hunt the Sumatran tiger and other wildlife for the lucrative illegal trade.
However, when WWF created the Tiger Protection Unit, a new opportunity arose. It offered Samsu, and other community members around Rimbang Baling, the chance to get involved in conservation work – while still being able to provide for their families.
“The importance of the local communities can not be emphasised enough – they are the ones who will ultimately determine whether the tiger can survive in the area or not”, says Sunarto.
The majority of Samsu’s work on the ground focuses on tackling the immediate threat to tigers – poaching. Samsu and the team spend up to 21 days in the forest at a time, tirelessly patrolling; removing snares and gathering intelligence on illegal activities. This work not only protects tigers, but the forest and other species that live there too.
As Samsu points out,
“We should protect the forest first, as the first priority and then the tigers, because without the forest, tigers cannot survive.”
The reverse is also true – Without charismatic species like wild tigers, forests may quickly lose the attention they have for protection.
In 2016 alone, around 5% of the Sumatran tiger population was killed for the tiger trade. Illegal harvesting of CITES-listed species like tigers in World Heritage sites such as the Tropical Rainforest Heritage of Sumatra, degrades vital social and economic benefits that the local communities depend on.
If current levels of poaching and trade continue, tigers could disappear from the wild in Sumatra and lead to a reduced incentive to protect its pristine forests, resulting in further wide-scale deforestation for commercial plantations.
Deforestation affects locals' livelihood as they depend on forests
Forests are being cleared from palm oil obtained from these fruits.
Fewer green spaces in Rimbang Baling with mass deforestation
“The challenge that we face here is not only from the local problem or local demand. The main threat to Sumatran tigers is habitat loss and poaching – both of which involve demand from the global community. Efforts to conserve tigers not only depend on Sumatra, but also largely on the commitment of people around the world,” Sunarto said.
Transiting through Singapore and Malaysia, poaching of Sumatra’s tigers is driven by demand in countries such as Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia and China, where tiger products are used for traditional medicines, tonics, and bought for symbols of status and wealth.
In Rimbang Baling, wildlife crime teams are more forcefully identifying poachers and traders, and tackling illegal wildlife trades in tiger landscapes and beyond. In 2016 alone, five poaching cases were brought to court in central Sumatra, and sentences neared the maximum five years’ imprisonment. Increasing efforts by Indonesian authorities to protect wildlife in the Tropical Rainforest Heritage of Sumatra is key to sustaining its protected status.
To protect the last Sumatran tigers, we must see protecting these World Heritage Sites as a priority.
WWF continues to engage companies and other stakeholders to ensure environmentally-conscious management practices become the norm, not the exception. But accelerated action is urgently needed – and strong support is needed.
Simple everyday decisions by people can have an impact on saving the forests – and tigers too. When buying wood-based products, look and ask for FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) or 100% recycled pulp and paper options. Supporting products that are made from a responsibly managed forest can steer businesses in the right direction.