Saving the last tigers

Rampant plantation is destroying big cats’ habitat in Sumatra

By Sudeshna Sarkar (Wildlife)

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Published: Tue 22 Oct 2013, 7:58 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 7:18 PM

When the 20th century started, tigers were so plentiful on the Indonesian island of Sumatra that the Dutch colonists who lived there noted with alarm that the big cats would boldly stride into their compounds, looking for food.

That was the golden age of a species that today is becoming increasingly endangered.

In 1978, the island’s tiger population was estimated to be around round 1,000. Today, it has dwindled alarmingly to about 400.

Around the world, only 13 countries — and perhaps North Korea — still boast of harbouring the big cats. All of them are in Asia, barring Russia. The global total is a meager 3,000 plus, shrunk miserably from the 100,000 or more in the 20th century.

Several sub-species, including the Sumatra tiger’s country cousins the Bali and Java tigers, have become extinct. Now there are fears that the Sumatra tiger could follow them, thanks to the rapid destruction of the rainforests of Sumatra, their natural habitat, which is exposing them to poachers as well as stripping them of food.

To the outsider, there is little connection between the semi-extinction of the tiger and an increased use of lipsticks and shampoos, confectionery and other oil-based food.

However, there is. The link is called palm oil, an edible vegetable oil obtained from the pulp of the fruit of the oil palm. Because the commercial cultivation of oil palm is far more lucrative than rice and many other cash crops, planters are mercilessly slashing and burning forests in Indonesia to grow oil palm.

Indonesia is the world’s largest producer of palm oil, which is used extensively in the production of toiletry items, confectionery and other food products.

A new report by Greenpeace says the rainforests of Sumatra are vanishing at a staggering rate — a quarter of a million hectares every year. Expansion of oil palm and pulpwood plantations was responsible for nearly two-thirds of the destruction of tiger habitat from 2009 to 2011.

“Such destruction fragments the extensive tracts of rainforest over which tigers need to range in order to hunt. It also increases their contact with humans; this leads to more poaching for tiger skins and traditional medicines and more tiger attacks, resulting in both tiger and human deaths,” says the report, Licence to kill.

This summer, huge fires in Sumatra’s Riau province destroyed hundreds of thousands of hectares of rainforests. Besides wiping out part of the last stand of tiger habitat in the province, the fires released record amounts of greenhouse gas emissions and pollutants, triggering a haze that spread to Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and Thailand, creating a trans-boundary hazard.

While some of the fires were accidents, some were caused by palm oil planters burning down forests to clear land for cultivation.

“Even Sumatran tiger habitat in protected areas such as the world-famous Tesso Nilo National Park has been virtually destroyed by encroachment for illegal palm oil production, and government officials acknowledge that protection for such areas exists only on paper,” the report says.

“Over the 2009–2011 period, pulpwood suppliers were responsible for a sixth of all forested tiger habitat loss. Over the same period, the palm oil sector cleared a quarter of the tiger habitat remaining in its concessions.”

These actions, Greenpeace says, expose how unregulated and irresponsible expansion undermines the Indonesian government’s commitments to stop deforestation and save the tiger and other endangered wildlife, like the orang-utan.

The palm oil industry, on the other hand, provides a livelihood to thousands of farmers, including a large number of women, and is one of the props of the national economy.

Greenpeace says it recognises this. However, in Indonesia, the costs of irresponsible, unregulated palm oil production go beyond commerce, affecting the environment and ecology.

“The household brands that buy (dirty) palm oil must recognise the true costs of irresponsible palm oil production,” it says.

“They need to ensure that their palm oil supply makes a genuine contribution to Indonesia’s development, rather than destroying the future for its people, its wildlife and the global climate on which we all depend.”

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