Medan, Indonesia – Ben Husen, an Indonesian journalist, clearly remembers the time he came face to face with a Sumatran tiger – or eight of them, in fact.
“I once went to someone’s house here in Aceh, and he had eight tiger skins that had been stuffed and made to look like real tigers again,” Husen, who is from Lhokseumawe in Aceh on the northern part of Sumatra island, told Al Jazeera. “He had so many that, if I’d asked for one, I’m sure he would have given it to me. Now they sell for tens of millions of rupiah (thousands of dollars).”
Sumatran tigers are critically endangered and a fixture of the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species, with about 600 animals thought to be left in the wild.
The big cats face a number of challenges in their struggle for survival including rampant deforestation, which has not only destroyed their natural habitat, but also fragmented it.
And then, there is poaching for the tiger’s skins or body parts, which are widely used in traditional Chinese medicine despite there being no evidence of their efficacy.
Last weekend, a female tiger and a male cub thought to be about 10 months old were found caught in traps made up of thick wire cables, known as slings, close to Sri Mulya village in East Aceh.
Another cub was found in a separate trap about 500 metres away.
Wild boar snares are similar to tiger snares and made from motorcycle clutch wire in the form of a sling.
The authorities in East Aceh said that they suspected that the traps had been laid by hunters trying to catch wild boar rather than the tigers.
Husen says it seems likely the big cats were not the targets.
“Real tiger hunters stay close to the traps,” he said. “When tigers get caught in the slings, they often thrash around to try and escape, and that damages their skin and fur which the hunters want to sell.
“To minimise any damage, hunters try to club the tigers as soon as possible after they have been caught in a sling.”
Boar: target of tiger and poacher
According to Iswandi, the director of the Lingkar Inisiatif NGO that works to combat wildlife crime in Indonesia, there are four reasons why tigers might leave their habitat deep within forested areas: deforestation, a lack of prey, age and disease.
“One of the tiger’s prey is wild boar. Currently the wild boar population has been greatly reduced due to hunting and the African Swine Fever [ASF] virus,” he said. “So it is natural for tigers to leave their habitat when prey is reduced.”
“Hunting for wild boars in Sumatra also occurs because of demand,” he added.
According to Iswandi, boar is also hunted to supply the Ragunan Zoo in Jakarta – with hunters in Bengkulu in the island’s southwest sending up to six tonnes of wild boar meat to the zoo every month.
From the injuries to the tigers’ bodies and deep cut marks from the slings, it appeared as if they had been caught some time before they were found.
Husen told Al Jazeera that a professional tiger hunter would never have left the animals to start decomposing.
He adds that the only people who would hunt wild boar in Aceh, an ultraconservative semi-autonomous province that is predominantly Muslim and follows Islamic law, would be indigenous people from neighbouring provinces who are often Christian and travel to Aceh to hunt boar and take them home to eat or sell in restaurants.
Hunting, however, is not an exact science and hunters sometimes find that they catch animals they were not targeting.
“There was once a case of a farmer’s cow that got caught in a wild boar trap. It caused quite a commotion as it died of thirst and fatigue from struggling to get free,” Husen recalled. “The hunters had to pay the farmer compensation for his cow and apologise for the mistake.”
Iswandi says that the cause of the tigers’ deaths would need to be determined by a full autopsy, but that they had probably died in a similar way to the cow after becoming entangled in the traps.
Forest being lost
Poaching in Indonesia is punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of 100 million Indonesian rupiah ($6,894).
As a result of deforestation and poaching, many Sumatran tigers now live in protected forests in Sumatra’s national parks.
Rudi Putra, a senior adviser for the Leuser Conservation Forum at Gunung Leuser National Park, says the death of the tigers was a “sad event”, but the fact that the three were a mother and two cubs shows how tiger populations in Aceh – and outside these areas – continue to survive despite the odds.
“When we set up our camera traps, we get so many photos and videos of tigers with their young. 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 that was very rare.”
He estimates that there are about 250 tigers in Aceh, and some 600 in total across Sumatra.
“When we observe the tigers in the wild and track individuals nowadays, they seem to have a relaxed demeanour,” he said. “Even individuals who have previously been caught in traps can go on to survive and have babies, and their survival rates into adulthood now seem relatively high.”
Sumatran tigers are the only species of tiger still found in Indonesia and also the smallest. Balinese tigers and Javan tigers have been extinct since the 1930s and 1970s respectively.
As populations increase and forests shrink, tigers are venturing closer to villages, like the three found in the poachers’ snares, which were outside protected forest areas and working forests, suggesting that tigers are being squeezed into even small areas.
“Every year we lose forest in Aceh,” said Putra.
“And that means that we are also seeing more conflict between humans and tigers as a result.”