As forests disappear, Indonesia must monitor big cats to reduce human wildlife conflict, says scientist

As Indonesia's national parks face threats from deforestation, agricultural expansion and other forms of human encroachment, it's vital that tigers, leopards and other large mammals be monitored as part of conservation efforts -- otherwise clashes with people will intensify, a senior scientist with the Center for International Forestry Research warns.
A CIFOR researcher and nationa par officer set up a camera trap in Gunung Halimun-Salak naitonal park.

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BOGOR, Indonesia (22 March, 2013)_As Indonesia’s national parks face threats from deforestation and human encroachment, it’s vital that tigers, leopards and other large mammals be monitored as part of conservation efforts – otherwise clashes with people will intensify, a senior scientist with the Center for International Forestry Research warns.

“New programs or policies aimed at protecting wild animals will have little impact unless they actually monitor the territories and behavioural patterns of key species,” said Terry Sunderland.

His comments come after rare images of three Javan leopards (Panthera pardus melas), were captured in a national park in west Java, Indonesia – part of recent CIFOR research to monitor declining leopard populations.

It is hoped that the images, which include other elusive species, such as barking deer, small-clawed otter and common palm civet, will provide the national park with vital data to better understand leopard home ranges in order to develop policies aimed at reducing human wildlife conflict.

“Big cats often have a defined territory or range, so once that is determined, you can pretty much manage your national park to avoid conflict situations to some extent,” Sunderland said.

This could include redrawing national park zones and boundaries to ensure that communities do not collect forest resources in areas where big cats are known to breed; carrying out interventions to scare wildlife away from smallholder farms and plantations; and implementing compensation schemes that pay communities when cattle is killed or crops destroyed.

The race for space in national parks in Indonesia

The need to survey and track biodiversity in Indonesia – which has the world’s second-largest tract of rainforest and one of its richest ecosystems – has become  increasingly clear in recent decades.

Despite a two-year moratorium, recently extended, to limit forest clearing for palm oil, agricultural plantations and commercial logging, up to 1.1 million hectares of forest is lost every year, according to Ministry of Forestry data. That’s decimating already vulnerable habitats. While the country is home to the world’s largest number of mammal species, a third of these are facing extinction.

At the same time, many local communities are being displaced from their traditional lands, sometimes into national parks and protected areas.

In Sumatra, CIFOR research has shown that landless farmers are converting buffer zones around Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park into smallholder agricultural and coffee plantations – a quarter of Indonesia’s coffee is now grown in national parks.

“It shows that the drivers of displacement from unprotected forest land are so strong that people are now willing to take the risk and set up farms in national parks … They have become the last areas of forest that people rely on,” Sunderland said.

As such, wildlife and people are increasingly coming into contact.

In January 2013 it was reported that 10 pygmy elephants, one of the rarest sub-species of elephant in the world, were poisoned on Borneo, an island shared by Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei. Although not confirmed, a retaliatory killing by a local farmer for damage done to crops was cited as the most likely cause.

Tigers and people clash in Sumatra

Human-tiger conflict is something that a team from the Indonesian branch of the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) is seeing on a regular basis.

For the past four years, they have been monitoring tiger populations and their home ranges in Berbak and neighbouring Sembilang National park on the island of Sumatra. The island is home to the last 350 Sumatran tigers in the wild.

As acacia and palm oil plantations spring up around the national park’s borders, tigers are increasingly moving into areas frequented by humans, says Laura D’Arcy, Country Manager for ZSL Indonesia.

“The fruits and vegetation produced by these plantations attract an abundance of tiger prey, such as pigs and deer, which lure tigers out of the forest,” she said. “The goats and cattle reared by smallholder farmers are also an easy meal for a sick or injured tiger.”

As tigers move into these areas, the consequences can be deadly.

“Palm oil is an extremely lucrative crop, so to protect their plantations from crop raiding by pigs, farmers are now using electrical fences, spanning several kilometres, with deadly voltages. We have lost two adult male tigers in one month from electrocution.”

During a patrol last year, the team discovered a set of tiger bones while setting up camera traps to monitor big cats in the area. With the skin and teeth still remaining and the body badly decomposed, the team ruled out a deliberate kill.

A team from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) examine the bones of a tiger caught in a snare. CIFOR

A team from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) examine the bones of a tiger caught in a snare. CIFOR

“Tigers are often killed by poachers as they are extremely valuable for export in the illegal wildlife trade, but they can get caught accidentally in snares set up to catch other prey,” D’arcy said. “It is very likely this snare was put out to catch a large animal, such as a deer, and then was forgotten about by the poacher with tragic consequences.”

It is always disheartening to lose a tiger, she said, especially when so many deaths could be avoided. However, ZSL, in partnership with the Wildlife Crime and Conflict Response team (WCCRT) – a team of national park staff, ministry and district-level forestry officials tasked with enforcing the laws protecting national parks and tigers – are already seeing results from their activities on the ground.

The WCCRT carries out foot patrols to catch illegal poachers and collect snares, D’Arcy said. They also teach communities how to use tiger-scaring devices, such as flares, and help them find more wildlife friendly ways to protect their crops.

tiger canine

The discovery of tiger canines suggests a deliberate kill by poachers for the trade in tiger parts is unlikely.

“We even have a tiger hot-line that communities can call in the event of an incident. Incidences of human tiger conflict have decreased, so we know what we are doing is working.”

Technology has also played a huge part. The data collected from camera traps, foot patrols and collars tracking tigers as they move through forest is being relayed daily through a central database system that has helped reduce human-tiger conflict and improved protection efforts.

“Technology has advanced so much in the last few years that we can now identify individual tigers and can get a more accurate picture of their behaviour as they move through the landscape. The database also gives people the incentive to share information.”

“It is all vital evidence to ensure tiger protection in the future.”

Can wildlife and people live side by side?

Such monitoring, Sunderland argues, is one way to ensure that legislation and initiatives aimed at protecting key species – that normally come at a cost to both people and wildlife – are actually effective.

“At the moment there is a lot of confusion over rights and access to forests resources, which as forests and wildlife habitat dwindle, will only exacerbate human-wildlife conflict in the future.”

“There needs to be some kind of trade-off, and these decisions need to be based on accurate data,” he added

A CIFOR scientist and national park staff set up a camera trap to monitor leopard populaitons in west Java.

A CIFOR scientist and national park staff set up a camera trap to monitor leopard populaitons in west Java.

For example, compensation schemes that would pay farmers for loss of livestock and crops could be one way to prevent retaliatory wildlife killings. Although Indonesia does not yet have such a scheme, those carried out by small non-governmental organisations like the Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation (IRDNC) in Namibia, Africa, to cover crop damage from wildlife attacks, have had some positive impacts.

However, the monitoring of big cats in Indonesia will be vital to help eliminate false compensation claims, Sunderland says, as these are often linked to the wider and more serious problem of the wildlife trade, which according to TRAFFIC reached the value of USD323 billion in 2009.

“The wildlife trade and human wildlife conflict go hand in hand. Retaliatory killings for damage done to crops or loss of livestock are often used as an excuse to hunt valuable and protected species, which are often sold on the black market to consumers, ” said Sunderland.

“There are cases where people claim crops are being destroyed and livestock taken with very little evidence to suggest that tigers, leopards or elephants, are actually the ‘perpetrators’ of the crime.”

It’s a challenge to ensure that people and wildlife live peacefully side by side, says Sunderland, especially as success often depends on well-funded conservation programs and the support of local communities to adapt their livelihoods.

“It’s very sad that national parks in Indonesia are unable to adapt to the pressures placed upon them as there is so little money put on the table for operational costs.”

“This makes the involvement of the community in managing wildlife even more critical,” he said. “They know the parks, they know the wildlife, and, as the ‘gatekeepers’ of the resources within, they often know how to manage the land sustainably. In many cases their management systems are better than the legal instruments put in place.”

“So involving communities in a really meaningful way – don’t just ‘say’ participation, ‘do’ participation – is the way forward.”

For more information about the issues discussed in this article, please contact Terry Sunderland at

This research is carried out as part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry.

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