A Sumatran tiger is held and treated after being hurt in recent conflicts with local villagers.

It may sound like a cliché but it is apt to start this piece with an extract from an immortal poem by William Blake.

Tyger! Tyger! Burning bright

In the forests of the night,

What immortal hand or eye

Could frame thy fearful symmetry?”

The beauty of these words have transcended time and still can evoke raw and powerful images of a pair of burning eyes peering quizzically from the bowels of ancient forests! It would have been fortuitous had the enigma and mystery surrounding these noble creatures not been stripped away. For what we humans don’t fear, unfortunately we don’t respect. Tigers around the world are struggling to keep the horrific fate of “extinct” away. But their plight is nowhere as pronounced as on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, funnily enough labeled as a WWF priority region. The Panthera tigris sumatrae is a sight to behold. The males may weigh up to about 140 Kg and can grow to an intimidating height of 60 cm. Their coat is rich and lush, burnt gold adorned with soot black stripes. They do not have manes but the males have a full head of glorious facial hair which gives the impression of a halo around their regal faces. This magnificence is precisely the reason why the condition is so shameful. It just delineates further that we can’t appreciate the glory of nature. The Sumatran tiger entered the domain of the “Critically Endangered” species in the year 2008 as per the IUCN red list. This roughly translates into the alarming message that at long last our avarice has caught up with us and in the quest to foster the illegal animal parts trade the Sumatran tigers are on the verge of being sacrificed. Just like their extinct cousins the Javan and Balinese tigers.

The Sumatran tigers tend to inhabit the montane forests, the remaining blocks of the island’s lowland forests, peat swamps, and the freshwater swamp forests. This natural habitat of theirs is rapidly disappearing as out of the 130,000 square kilometers of viable “tiger territory” only one third enjoys some sort of protection against human violations like logging and accelerated urban development. As seen in many instances before, the decline of the habitat is inextricably intertwined with the population of a specie. No wonder the wild population of the Sumatran tigers is a dismal 400 individuals. The more disturbing news perhaps is the fact that no sub-population of the Sumatran tiger is more than 50 strong. This indicates that the danger is unrelenting as there is no respite in sight in the near future because of fertility issues plaguing the smaller demographics. Today standing as the final frontier is the Kerinci Seblat National Park in central Sumatra which has a somewhat respectable number of 165 to 190 individuals.

A Sumatran tiger is held and treated after being hurt in recent conflicts with local villagers.

A Sumatran tiger is held and treated after being hurt in recent conflicts with local villagers.

So why is there no place on this vast planet for the Sumatran tigers? The answer sadly is ubiquitous! Why is there no place for the other myriad endangered animals the world over? A number of reasons work together to create a quagmire of difficulties for certain species. In case of the Sumatran tiger the reasons start to sound like a broken record. Firstly the island of Sumatra is definitely an over populated one. People need to live the American dream and no one particularly cares if an innocent creature perishes. It is all collateral damage. In order to make space for the “modern life” Sumatra has lost 25,868 square miles of forest—larger than the state of West Virginia—between 1985 and 1997. This is despite the fact that awareness is gradually seeping into human conscience! Though heinous, deforestation has not been responsible for the actual slaughter of the Sumatran tigers! The special honor is reserved for the illegal animal trade and rampant poaching. A survey by TRAFFIC estimates that 40 animals every year die because their bones are thought to be life giving elixirs and their coats adorning the mansions of millionaires is the high end rage. Last but definitely not the least, as a direct off shoot of the problem of exploding population is human-animal conflict! What it simply means is that the tigers unable to find enough sustenance in the larders of their rapidly disappearing “natural” habitat stray into human habitations which are perilously close to tiger territory and get shot or electrocuted for the effort! Shameful and incriminatory!

A tiger print found near an elephant camp in West Sumatra

A tiger print found near an elephant camp in West Sumatra

Yes….shameful and incriminatory indeed. But if it seems like all is lost beyond hope, we may be mistaken. After all the tenet of human life is hope and certain groups are working to extend this human privilege to the beleaguered Sumatran tigers. The most dominant voice is obviously that of WWF. It has used the favorable publicity of the 2010 Year of the Tiger to get six priority landscapes for tigers included in the National Tiger Recovery Program that happily has the unequivocal support of the Indonesian government. Further Sumatra’s district and provincial governments have of late taken into consideration land use plans to monitor the impact of the paper, palm and timber industries on the landscape of the region!  Going in a roundabout way the Rainforest Alliance is also contributing to a better future for the regal feline. It has helped several illegal immigrants who trespassed into tiger territory to start coffee and pepper farming, post the 2006 Tsunami, promote sustainable coffee development. Sustainable development is the right foot forward in the battle to conserve the meager natural habitat of the tiger left in the country! The Sumatran Tiger Preservation Foundation (YPHS) is another big player and they have pushed forward the incentive of locating tigers to more protected regions where they can thrive and reproduce without the constant threat of human violence hanging overhead. If in future, this endeavor can pick up sufficient pace, it can indeed become a ray of sunshine penetrating the dark clouds of gloom for the Sumatran tigers. The Sumatran Tiger Trust (STT) Fund is a registered UK charity proactive on the net as they try to build up the conservation and awareness momentum by seeking donations to contribute to the various Sumatran ventures working ceaselessly to help save the tigers. The Sumatran Tiger Conservation program is the largest such effort of its kind in Indonesia and they work in tandem with STT in order to ensure that the Sumatran tigers do get to see the dawn of a new century.

We all remember a common middle grade Biology question. It seems pretty inane at the time but as we grow old we ponder and realize its significance! “Name an extinct animal?”

We pen down the answer to it and it’s symbolic. It’s very much a manifestation of our will. Especially in this day and age! We can indeed script a new story for the Sumatran tigers. It is very much in our hands. Their glorious fire can burn on…as embers for now! We just need to keep the ash at bay. Love, tolerance and sincere effort can accomplish that.

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