Medan, Indonesia – Ben Husen, an Indonesian journalist, vividly remembers the time he came face to face with a Sumatran tiger – or eight of them, actually.
“I once went to someone’s house here in Aceh, and he had eight tiger skins that had been stuffed and remade to look like real tigers,” Husen, who is from Lhokseumawe in Aceh, said in part north of the island of Sumatra, in Al Jazeera. . “He had so many that if I had asked for one, I’m sure he would have given it to me. Now they sell for tens of millions of rupees (thousands of dollars). »
Sumatran Tigers are critically endangered and are on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species, with around 600 animals believed to be left in the wild.
The big cats face a number of challenges in their fight for survival, including rampant deforestation, which has not only destroyed their natural habitat, but also fragmented it.
And then there is poaching for tiger skins or body parts, which are widely used in traditional Chinese medicine although there is no evidence of their effectiveness.
Last weekend, a tigress and a male lion cub, about 10 months old, were found trapped in traps made of thick metal cables, called slings, near the village of Sri Mulya in eastern Aceh .
Another cub was found in a separate trap about 500 yards away.
Boar snares are similar to tiger snares and made from motorcycle clutch wire in the form of a sling.
Authorities in East Aceh said they suspected the traps had been set by hunters trying to catch wild boars rather than tigers.
Husen says it seems likely the big cats weren’t the targets.
“True tiger hunters stay close to the traps,” he said. “When tigers are caught in the slingshots, they often struggle in an attempt to escape, damaging their skin and fur that hunters want to sell.
“To minimize damage, hunters try to bludgeon tigers as soon as possible after they have been caught in a sling.”
Boar: target of the tiger and the poacher
According to Iswandi, the director of the NGO Lingkar Inisiatif which fights against wildlife crime in Indonesia, there are four reasons why tigers could leave their habitat deep in forested areas: deforestation, lack of prey , age and disease.
“One of the prey of the tiger is the wild boar. Currently the wild boar population has been drastically reduced due to hunting and African swine fever [ASF] virus,” he said. “So it’s natural for tigers to leave their habitat when prey is low.”
“Wild boar hunting in Sumatra also happens due to demand,” he added.
According to Iswandi, wild boar are also hunted to supply Ragunan Zoo in Jakarta – hunters from Bengkulu in the southwest of the island send up to six tons of wild boar meat to the zoo each month.
From the wounds to the tigers’ bodies and the deep cut marks from the slings, it looked like they had been caught some time before being found.
Husen told Al Jazeera that a professional tiger hunter would never let the animals start to decompose.
He adds that the only people who would hunt wild boar in Aceh, an ultra-conservative semi-autonomous province that is predominantly Muslim and follows Islamic law, would be natives from neighboring provinces who are often Christians and travel to Aceh to hunt wild boar and to lead away. home to eat or sell in restaurants.
Hunting, however, is not an exact science and hunters sometimes find that they catch animals they weren’t targeting.
“There was a case where a farmer’s cow got caught in a boar trap. It caused quite a stir as he died of thirst and fatigue after struggling to free himself,” Husen recalled. “The hunters had to pay the farmer compensation for his cow and apologize for the mistake.”
Iswandi says the tigers’ cause of death should be determined by a full autopsy, but they probably died the same way as the cow after becoming entangled in the traps.
Poaching in Indonesia is punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of 100 million Indonesian rupees ($6,894).
Due to deforestation and poaching, many Sumatran tigers now live in the protected forests of Sumatran National Parks.
Rudi Putra, senior adviser to the Leuser Conservation Forum at Gunung Leuser National Park, said the death of the tigers was a “sad event”, but the fact that the three were a mother and two cubs shows how people tigers in Aceh – and outside these areas – continue to survive despite the obstacles.
“When we set up our camera traps, we get so many photos and videos of tigers with their cubs. Tigers can give birth to three or four cubs at a time, just like cats,” he told Al Jazeera: “It is also not uncommon for our patrol teams to come across tigers in the forests, whereas 20 years ago it was very rare.”
He estimates that there are around 250 tigers in Aceh and some 600 in total in Sumatra.
“When we observe tigers in the wild and track individuals nowadays, they seem to have a relaxed demeanor,” he said. “Even individuals that have been caught in traps before can survive and have babies, and their survival rate into adulthood now appears to be relatively high.”
Sumatran tigers are the only tiger species still present in Indonesia and also the smallest. Balinese tigers and Javanese tigers have been extinct since the 1930s and 1970s respectively.
As populations grow and forests shrink, tigers venture closer to villages, like the three found in poachers’ traps, which were outside protected forest areas and logged forests, suggesting that tigers are crowded even in small areas.
“Every year we lose forest in Aceh,” Putra said.
“And that means we’re also seeing more human-tiger conflict as a result.”