Ensuring a Brighter Future for Sumatra’s Tigers

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“Tyger, Tyger burning bright in the forests of the night: What immortal hand or eye could frame thy fearful symmetry?” ~ William Blake, 1757 – 1827

In 1794, the English poet William Blake published “The Tyger” – today, one of the most well-known poems in the English language.

At roughly the same time Blake wrote his poem it is estimated there were over 1,000 Sumatran Tigers prowling the rainforest of Sumatra. Sumatran Tigers were so abundant at the turn of the 19th century that rewards were given for their slaughter.

Now it is estimated that only between 400 -500 Sumatran Tigers remain and conservationists are struggling to save the critically endangered species from extinction.

Sumatran Tigers (Panthera tigris sumatrae) are found only on Sumatra – the largest island in Indonesia’s Sunda Island chain and the sixth largest island in the world. They are one of six remaining subspecies of tigers in the world and the last of the Sunda Tiger subspecies.

These tigers have the distinction of being one of the smallest subspecies, weighing between 165 – 310 pounds. Unlike other subspecies, males sport a pronounced mane-like ruff around the neck.

camera-trap Bukit Tigapuluh Tigress © YKEHS
destruction Deforestation in Bukit Tigapuluh © David Gilbert
tigress-and-cubsSumatran Tiger with Cubs © Brian McKay

Sumatran Tigers range across forest habitats spanning from coastal plains to rugged mountain uplands, preying on a variety of species including Rusa Deer and Bearded Pigs. They crucially need large contiguous blocks of forests to thrive. However, these areas are being lost at an unprecedented rate.

As recently as the 1950’s, Indonesia was covered with dense rainforest. Today, just half of that tropical forest remains. Nowhere is this rapid deforestation more apparent than on Sumatra. Every minute, a forested area equal to five football fields is cleared to make way for paper, rubber and oil palm plantations.

Sumatra’s tropical landscapes, so prized by plantation owners are the same ones preferred by Sumatran Tigers and other threatened megafauna such as Sumatran Orangutans and Elephants. As a result, populations of these species have dropped precipitously and all face extinction if quick action is not taken to protect remaining forest habitats.

Rainforest Trust is working with local partner Yayasan Konservasi Ekosistem Hutan Sumatera (YKEHS) to create three protected areas that will conserve 200,396 acres. These reserves will protect lowland tropical forest habitat in the Bukit Tigapuluh ecosystem of Central Sumatra.

Located between Sumatra’s Jambi and Riau provinces, the Bukit Tigapuluh ecosystem is one of the last remaining areas of large contiguous lowland forest in Sumatra. The region covers more than 370,000 acres of forest that is home to an extremely rich ecosystem with high biodiversity.

Along with Sumatran Tigers, approximately 60 other mammal species have been found in the ecosystem. Additionally, more than 1,500 flora types, 193 bird species, 97 fish species, and nine primate species, including orangutans, have been recorded in the immediate area.

The Bukit Tigapuluh ecosystem has been identified as one of only two priority landscapes for long-term tiger conservation in Sumatra. More than 30 Sumatran Tigers live there, which makes protecting the population in Bukit Tigapuluh critical to save the species.

Extensive camera trap surveys of tigers in the Bukit Tigapuluh ecosystem by YKEHS have caught individual tigers in 30 different locations. Just like the human fingerprint, tiger stripes are unique to each individual, which allows specific tigers to be identified by photograph.

Analysis and cross-comparison of stripe patterns in a recent survey in Bukit Tigapuluh resulted in the identification of 12 adult tigers (five females, seven males) and three tiger cubs.

These cubs provide good reason to hope that we can rescue Sumatran Tigers from extinction. Rainforest Trust and its conservation partner’s goal is to help protect these precious tigers, their territory and prey. Our shared hope is that Sumatra’s Tigers will continue to “burn bright in the forest of the night,” for a long time to come.

Learn how you can help Rainforest Trust and its partners to save Sumatran Tigers and their habitats.

The Last of the Sunda Tigers

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In the rainforests of Sumatra live the last of the Sunda or “Island Tigers” – a distinct group of tiger subspecies once found across Indonesia’s Sunda Island chain. Until only a few decades ago, tigers roamed the islands of Bali and Java. Today, the Bali and Javan tiger subspecies are extinct.

The Bali tiger (Panthera tigris balica) was the smallest of the tiger subspecies and was last positively recorded in the late 1930’s in Bali Barat National Park. Pushed to the edge by growing human populations, hunted for sport, and persecuted by villagers as a pest, it was declared extinct not long after the end of the Second World War.

The Javan tiger (Panthera tigris sundaica), which is more similar to the Sumatran, held on longer into the 20th century. Between 1900 and 1975, the population on Java almost tripled from 28 million to 85 million people. During this time, the annual production of rice was unable to keep up with population demands, resulting in the clearing of forests for rice cultivation. In 1938, tropical forests covered 23% of the island; By 1975, only 8% remained.

Java tiger fo webJavan tiger © Public domain
Sumatran for webSumatran tiger © Sandra Wildeman

As habitat for Javan tigers dwindled, the tigers and their prey were hunted and poisoned during intensified human-wildlife conflicts. Tropical forests were converted to rice fields or teak and rubber plantations, further fragmenting tiger habitat.

During the 1960‘s, disease ravaged Rusa deer, the tigers’ most important prey, further weakening the species. Civil unrest in Java after 1965 pushed militants into reserves killing many of the remaining tigers.

In the following decades, the remaining Javan tiger population was restricted to only three reserves on the island that lacked adequate protection for them and their prey species. Confirmed sightings became increasingly infrequent and in 1984 the last confirmed Javan tiger was killed outside Halimun Reserve in west Java.

To follow up on alleged sightings, a survey was conducted with the help of WWF between 1993 and 1994 using camera traps in east Java’s Meru Betiri National Park. No tiger tracks or other signs were found in the survey. The cameras revealed no tigers, few prey and many poachers. After the final report of this survey, the Javan tiger was declared extinct. Unofficial “ghost sightings” occasionally occur, but they are likely just that – ghosts.

Clearance of Java’s rainforests for agricultural expansion led to the extirpation of the Javan tiger and intensified other factors that led to what biologists refer to as an “extinction vortex”: a series of mutually reinforcing feedbacks that drives a population downward to extinction.

The same forces of rapid population growth, forest clearance for agriculture, rampant oil palm development and the ongoing persecution of tigers and their prey by poachers are now threatening the Sumatran Tiger (Panthera tigris sumatrae) – the last of the Sunda Tigers.

We can’t bring back the Bali and Javan tigers, but we can save the Sumatran Tiger and pull it out from the vortex of extinction. Learn how you can help Rainforest Trust and its partners to save Sumatran tigers and their habitat.

New Warbler Discovered in Colombia’s “Lost World”

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A new “San Lucas Warbler” has been formally described by Rainforest Trust’s CEO Dr. Paul Salaman. The Warbler was discovered during the first ever bird survey conducted in the Serranía de San Lucas, an isolated and conflict-ridden mountain range in northern Colombia that Dr. Salaman has called “possibly one of the greatest biological enigmas in the Americas.”

The new Warbler, named the San Lucas Warbler (Basileaterus tristriatus sanlucasensis), was formally described in the latest Bulletin of the British Ornithologist Club by Dr. Salaman. It has been initially designated a distinctive new subspecies of the Three-striped Warbler based on differences in molecular biology, plumage and voice from other populations and will likely be recognized as a distinct species with further research in the future.

The Serranía de San Lucas is a narrow 68 mile massif in northern Colombia covered in lush tropical rainforest that rises to over 7,000 feet. This once heavily forested massif has long been a stronghold for the ELN guerrilla insurgents, peppered with land mines and more recently plagued by illegal gold mining. The dangerous political landscape has prohibited access to researchers and conservationists.

Basileuterus tristriatus sanlucasensis new subspecies (7) New San Lucas Warbler
© Dr. Paul Salaman
paul wiith friends web
Dr. Salaman (second from right) during 2001 expedition

© Dr. Paul Salaman
san lucas aerial web
The forest of the Serrania de San Lucas

© Dr. Paul Salaman

Dr. Salaman led a team of field biologists on several attempted expeditions to the San Lucas massif in 1999 and again in 2000, before being turned back by guerillas. In 2001 the team was able to successfully mount an expedition to reach over 4,500 feet an area known as El Retén.

The team managed to make the first ever biological surveys in the highlands of the Serranía de San Lucas under very difficult conditions that involved navigating mined hillsides and tense encounters with guerrillas. They managed to survey at 4,500 feet to find this new Warbler on the 18th of March, 2001. The San Lucas Warbler is the first new taxa described from this mountain range.

In addition to this new discovery, the team recorded 374 bird species, eleven of which are considered threatened by the IUCN, including the Critically Endangered Blue-Knobbed Currasow. The survey also found endangered mammals such as the Spectacled Bear, Silvery Bare-Face Tamarin, and the White Fronted Capuchin Monkey, all classified as Vulnerable by the IUCN.

These preliminary results highlight the global importance of the Serranía de San Lucas for biodiversity and point to the possibility that many more species of flora and fauna unknown to science may be found at higher elevations. Biologically, the Serranía de San Lucas is one of the least known and most interesting areas in the Western Hemisphere.

Unfortunately, discoveries of massive gold deposits in the 1990’s and an expansion of illicit coca production have drastically altered the San Lucas Landscape in the past two decades. Today less than 10 percent of the forest’s original 2.5 million acres remains due to agriculture, small scale mining and other human impacts.

Rainforest Trust and our Colombian partner ProAves have pushed local authorities and the Colombian government to create a national park to protect the Serranía de San Lucas for over 15 years. Unfortunately, mining activities in the massif have prevented to date the creation of a protected area.

In Dr. Salaman’s words, “the biological treasures of the Serranía de San Lucas are disappearing and despite all of our best attempts this ‘lost world’ is being destroyed before our eyes.” The discovery of this endemic, the first new taxa found here, further highlights the biological importance and need to protect this unique mountain range.

Salaman has now described six birds new to science, including the Chocó Vireo–which he discovered at the age of 19. In 1998 he helped found Fundación ProAves, which has become one of the most effective conservation organizations in South America. After graduating with a D.Phil from the University of Oxford in 2001, Salaman undertook a post-doctoral fellowship at The Natural History Museum, before coordinating biodiversity science in the Andes for Conservation International. Salaman is a member of the Amphibian Survival Alliance’s Global Council. He joined Rainforest Trust in 2008 as the Director of Conservation and was appointed the CEO in January 2012.

Click to read Dr. Salaman’s 2001 expedition report.

News Release: Rainforest Trust Launches Earth Day Campaign to Save Imperiled Sumatran Wildlife

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Conservation project will protect over 200,000 acres of rainforest habitat in Indonesia for Sumatran Tigers, Orangutans and Elephants.

WARRENTON, Va., March 31, 2015

Rainforest Trust, a nonprofit conservation organization focused on saving threatened land and endangered species, has announced its 2015 Earth Day campaign, which will focus on conserving threatened rainforest in central Sumatra.

Working with local Sumatran partner Yayasan Konservasi Ekosistem Hutan Sumatera, Rainforest Trust will create three protected areas, totaling 200,396 acres that will conserve lowland rainforest habitat for critically endangered Sumatran tigers, orangutans and elephants.

Vincent Poulissen for web          Sumatran Elephants 
© Vincent Poulissen
Tanjung Puting National Park, Central Kalimantan, Indonesia, August 2010. Photo by Terry Sunderland/ CIFOR Center for International Forestry ResearchSumatran Orangutan  
© CIFOR

To celebrate Earth Day’s 45th anniversary on April 22, Rainforest Trust plans to raise $85,000 to protect the first 25,000 acres of the reserve. Thanks to an anonymous pledge, all donations made for this reserve will be matched. In central Sumatra, one acre can be protected for only $3.41.

“Time is quickly running out for Sumatra’s threatened wildlife,” said Dr. Paul Salaman, Rainforest Trust CEO. “We want to energize people on Earth Day by offering a very real, yet inexpensive option to protect tigers, elephants, and other endangered species.”

Half of Sumatra’s forest cover was destroyed between 1985 and 2008 due to logging and the rapid expansion of paper, rubber and palm oil plantations. Despite instituting a moratorium on new logging contracts in 2010, Indonesia’s forests have continued to disappear. By 2012, deforestation rates outpaced even those of Brazil. Today, only 25 percent of the island’s original forest remains intact.

As a result, much of the island’s fabled biodiversity is now endangered. Most notably, its endemic species – orangutans, tigers and elephants – face extinction in the near future if not protected.

Rainforest Trust’s project will take place in the Bukit Tigapuluh ecosystem, which contains one of Sumatra’s most important intact forests. The area is home to 30 Sumatran tigers. With only 400 still alive in the wild, protecting this population is critical to saving the species. Due to its strategic importance, the Bukit Tigapuluh landscape was declared a “Global Priority Tiger Conservation Landscape” by leading tiger scientists in 2006.

The area is also home to one of the last intact forests in Sumatra large enough to support elephant populations. It’s estimated that two herds – roughly 150 – of these critically endangered Sumatran elephants inhabit the region.

In addition, 175 orangutans, many of them rescued from the illegal pet trade and successfully reintroduced into the wild, dwell in the forest. Other endangered species in the area include Sun bears, Clouded Leopards, Agile Gibbons, Malayan Tapirs, and Leopard Cats.

To donate or learn more about this project, visit https://www.rainforesttrust.org/projects/urgent-appeals/sumatra/.

About Rainforest Trust
Rainforest Trust is a nonprofit conservation organization focused on saving rainforest and endangered species in partnership with local conservation leaders and indigenous communities. Since its founding in 1988, Rainforest Trust has saved nearly 8 million acres of rainforest and other tropical habitats and has 85 projects across 22 countries.

Media contacts:
Megan McMonagle
megan.mcmonagle@rfbinder.com
212-994-7612

Marc Ford, Rainforest Trust
info@rainforesttrust.org
1-800-456-4930