On the Trail of Sumatra’s Tigers

Sunlight filters through the cathedral-like forest canopy on a hike up the slopes of Mount Tujuh.

Sunlight filters through the cathedral-like forest canopy on a hike up the slopes of Mount Tujuh.

High in the mountains of western Sumatra, Kerinci Seblat National Park is one of the last remaining refuges of Indonesia’s dwindling tiger population.

By Mark Eveleigh

“If you see a tiger, try to get one of its teeth,” my taxi driver says brightly.

I am heading to the airport from my home in Bali, and I’ve just told him that I’m about to fly 2,400 kilometers to Indonesia’s largest island to look for Sumatran tigers.

“Yes, the teeth are very important,” he continues, talking over my waffled explanations of conservation priorities and ecological ethics. “If you get the teeth you can keep them as a charm, and nobody will ever be able to doubt that what you tell them is true.”

I shudder at the thought of a tiger being killed for its body parts—and at the fact that this was apparently the first notion that popped into the cabbie’s head when I mentioned the big cats. It’s an inauspicious start to a trip that I’m hoping will finally produce a positive report about a critically endangered species.

Three airports and a winding 10-hour drive later, I’m sitting in a clapboard house high in the mountains of Sumatra’s Jambi province while conservationist Debbie Martyr clues me in on the front-line battle against tiger poachers.

Overlooking Kerinci Valley and its namesake lake.

Overlooking Kerinci Valley and its namesake lake.

“Oh, for sure we have plenty of poachers around here,” she says. “But that’s a good sign. Wherever there are poachers there must be tigers, right?”

While her outlook on conservation strikes me as being delightfully optimistic, Indonesia’s big cats have not fared well in the past eight decades. Thanks to the international trade in tiger parts and local attitudes like that of my taxi driver, the country has already lost two of its three tiger subspecies. The Bali tiger was wiped out in the 1940s and the Javan tiger followed shortly afterward. Only the Sumatran tiger has held out, particularly in the highland valleys and mist-shrouded hills of Kerinci Seblat National Park.

“There are more tigers here than in Thailand, Burma, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam together,” Debbie tells me. “The reason for this is simple: if somebody poaches or trades tigers from this park they will get arrested, sooner or later.”

In the early ’90s, Debbie, a British journalist, ventured to the Sumatran rain forest to research a story about the island’s mythical orang pendek, a sort of Indonesian Sasquatch. She spent 
weeks at a time trekking through jungle and camping in remote areas of the national park until she fell into what would become a lifelong love affair with Kerinci. Stirred by the plight of its threatened tigers, Debbie soon turned her 
attention to protecting these top predators.

“At that time, forestry departments all over the world seemed to be focused only on the structure of the forest—the trees themselves—rather than what’s in the forest,” she laments. “As one local official told me: ‘I’d like to help with tigers and wildlife, but I’m in the forestry department. I can’t do anything for animals or birds. I can only protect trees.’ ”

Meanwhile, tigers were being poached almost on a weekly basis. With the help of the British conservation group Fauna & Flora International, Debbie began to train “tiger teams” to help the national park service protect the last of the country’s great predators. Like guerrilla reconnaissance groups, the patrol teams walk softly through the undergrowth, carrying little other than a large stick for protection.

“With tiger teams and the rangers working together we were able to patrol more effectively and with a heavier presence. We also had authority to fight the poachers in and out of the park. It worked so well that from 2006 up until 2010 we were one of only five national parks in the whole of Asia where tiger numbers actually increased.”

The estimated tiger population in Kerinci 
Seblat at the latest count in 2011 was between 165 and 190 individuals, roughly a third of the number still roaming in Sumatra’s jungles. In March this year Indonesia’s forestry ministry reported that there were only 371 left on the island. The continued decline is due to rampant poaching and widespread deforestation fueled by the global market’s insatiable appetite for palm oil and, in the Kerinci area, for coffee.

Poaching remains a threat, as this skull displayed by a park ranger attests.

Poaching remains a threat, as this skull displayed by a park ranger attests.

While a recent surge in organized poaching has put increasing pressure on the local tiger population, Kerinci Seblat largely remains a safe haven for these elusive big cats. The park sprawls across an area almost 20 times the size of Singapore, and even more if you include buffer zones. That makes it Southeast Asia’s second-largest national park, protecting a biodiversity hot spot capped by mist-shrouded jungle peaks and gouged by cascading rivers.

Shortly after dawn the next morning, I follow one of Debbie’s patrolmen into the forest. Jayendri, like most of his tiger team colleagues, has been recognized by the national park service as an honorary ranger and, as he crouches over a set of fresh tracks, he exudes the sort of confidence that is crucial when you spend as much time as he does in big-cat country.

“I once watched three tigers for several hours right near here,” Jayendri says. “We’re not actually inside the park at the moment but this is a wildlife corridor and tigers—even, in the past, elephants—often use this route to cross between two neighboring sections of the park.”

The sun is still low enough to throw a shadow onto the shallowest paw prints and, as we turn onto a dusty section of the track, a series of round indentations catches my eye. I know they’re too small to be a tiger’s, but they are clearly feline. After a brief examination, Jayendri confirms them to be the marks of an Asian golden cat, an ocelot-like animal whose coat can be anything from golden brown to black. We decide to follow the trail and within a few minutes I notice another series of indents. These are bigger. Much bigger. There’s no doubt that they could only belong to a tiger, or what Jayendri respectfully calls “the Boss.”

Though smaller than the prints of a Bengal tiger that I’d once seen in India, they are still big enough to make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I feel a particular thrill at the sudden realization that we are in the heart of predator country, unarmed and basically defenseless.

“There have been occasional attacks in the Kerinci area,” Jayendri says, as if reading my thoughts. “Even a couple of serial man-eaters many years ago. In general, though, attacks are usually a case of what we call salah alamat.” 
Literally meaning “wrong address,” these occur
when the tiger is not initially aware that its prey is human. Squatting in the track with my finger tracing the pugmark of a 100-kilogram super-predator with 10-centimeter fangs, I have the distinct impression that, for the moment at least, it is I who’ve come to the wrong address.

Three days later, I’m clambering through thick jungle on my way up to the crater lake near the peak of Mount Tujuh. My new guide, a soft-spoken jungle man aptly named Jhon Forest, tells me how he once came face-to-face with a tiger on this very trail.

“I came around the corner and my heart started hammering almost before I could even register what was in front of me,” he says. “I was frozen to the spot and it seemed like full minutes that we stared into each other’s eyes. Then he bounded over a bush and disappeared without a sound. I was still shaking about an hour later.”

Kerinci Seblat is a vital stronghold for the Sumatran tiger.

Kerinci Seblat is a vital stronghold for the Sumatran tiger.

Situated 1,950 meters above sea level, Danau Gunung Tujuh—the “Lake of the Seven Mountains”—feels romantically remote. At weekends, however, it is a popular camping spot for local kids, who often leave behind them a forest strewn with plastic litter.

At this latitude, less than 80 kilometers south of the equator, the sun sinks quickly. As it drops behind the rim of the ancient volcano, we are plunged into a brisk chill that sends me scurrying for firewood. The welcoming glow of our fire soon entices a lake fisherman named Bobbi to join us; he says he’s the only person who lives permanently on the mountain. As he and Jhon sit chatting in the local Kerinci dialect, the bark of a deer high up the forested slope above us makes me wonder what else might be lurking in the jungle. A tiger? An elusive orang pendek, perhaps? Or maybe one of the other mythical creatures that Debbie had told me about: a tiny cannibal witch called sibigau, or the cruel bunian spirit, which you can hear but never see.

Bobbi tells me that he frequently hears tigers around his camp, but that he doesn’t fear them. “They are my neighbors,” he says as the flames lick the cool night air. “Besides, there are other, far stranger creatures to watch out for.”

This article originally appeared in the October/November print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“The Big Cats of Kerinci”).

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