Fight to Save Sumatran Tiger

Six people and four endangered tigers were killed recently on the island of Sumatra in west Indonesia.

Conservationists point to habitat encroachment as the primary driver for this human-tiger conflict that occurred in the span of a single month.

As forests are wiped out, and in many cases replaced with palm oil plantations, hungry tigers are driven from their homes and into villages where livestock is typically available.

Such was the case for three young adult tigers that reportedly strayed from their forest homes into a village last month in search of food.

They were killed by residents who feared for their lives and livelihoods.

A fourth tiger was snared and killed Sunday after attacking two farmers who were later hospitalized. The details of the case are still under investigation.

Humans have also paid a cost. Three loggers were killed by tigers in the past month. A father and his adult son were killed by a tiger while sleeping in their hut and a man was mauled to death near a river by a tiger. The killings have shocked villagers.

"It's only going to get worse as more and more forest is cleared and forest is fragmented," said Barney Long, a World Wildlife Fund senior officer for Asian species conservation.

Based in Washington, D.C., Long flew to Indonesia to work with villagers in remote parts of Sumatra to avoid human-tiger conflict through general awareness and the implementation of livestock management techniques.

He strives to protect humans from tigers, and tigers from humans.

Poaching is a leading threat to the tiger population, which has dropped worldwide by 95 percent in the past century, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

The Sumatran tiger, with less than 500 in existence, is listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

In Indonesia, although it is illegal to hunt and trade tigers, protective laws haven't stopped their body parts, teeth, skin and bones from being sold around the region.

A poacher can earn $3,300 per tiger, according to The Associated Press, an equivalent to what some in this developing country make in a year.

Prices vary depending on what the tigers are sold for -- their meat or fur, for example -- and in which countries.

Tiger Protection Units Try to Eliminate Tiger Traps

Tiger protection units, through conservation groups like the World Wildlife Fund, canvass the millions of acres of forests in Indonesia to remove snares, spread word about anti-poaching and gather illegal activity intelligence.

"Often knowing who's who and being able to actually prosecute is a different matter," said Long, explaining that the hope is to be able to do more to support law enforcement agencies in the future.

The Indonesian government launched a 10-year action plan for the conservation of Sumatran tigers during the Bali Climate Change conference in 2007.

"We have to deal with the trade," Tonny Soehartono of Indonesia's Ministry of Forestry said in a statement. "Currently, we are facing many other crucial problems, which, unfortunately, are causing the decline of the Sumatran tiger populations."

"We have been struggling with the issues of land-use changes, habitat fragmentation, human-tiger conflicts and poverty in Sumatra."

Some of these issues are massive in scale.

Indonesia holds the Guinness world record for the highest annual rate of deforestation, according to Greenpeace, at 4.4 million acres per year between 2000 and 2005, or 20 square miles per day.

"Often it's illegal," said Long of the clear-cutting that results in tiger habitat loss. "And even if it's not illegal, it's certainly environmentally irresponsible."

Home to the world's third largest area of tropical forest after Brazil and the Congo Basin, Indonesia's forests are important environmentally and economically.

"It's a way to make money for the country," said Long of Indonesia's natural resources, "and within reason I don't think anyone's saying there shouldn't be palm oil plantations, but they need to plan carefully and in the right places."

In the meantime, conservationists continue to trek through remote parts of Sumatra, working to reduce human-tiger conflicts and help save both sides from each other.