The World’s Smallest Tiger Is Inching Towards Extinction

Sumatran tiger portrait
Mark Newman / Getty Images

Also known as Sunda tigers, Sumatran tigers once roamed across Indonesia’s Sunda Islands. Today, the critically endangered tiger subspecies has a population of between 400 and 500 individuals, now condensed solely to the forests of Sumatra—a large island found in western Indonesia.

The island of Sumantra is also the only place on Earth where tigers, rhinos, orangutans, and elephants—some of the Planet’s most threatened animals—live together in the wild. If this impressive subspecies continues to experience persistent loss of habitat and rampant poaching, it isn’t just a risk to the survival of the species, but to the area’s delicate levels of biodiversity as well.

Rare Sumatran Tiger Cubs Make Public Debut At Taronga Zoo
Sumatran tiger cub on display at Taronga Zoo on March 29, 2019 in Sydney, Australia. Mark Kolbe / Getty Images

Threats

Although most of its remaining range is isolated to protected tiger conservation landscapes and national parks, the dwindling global population of Sumantran tigers is believed to be declining at a rate of 3.2% to 5.9% each year. Apart from human-wildlife conflict, Sumantran tigers are mainly threatened by the illegal wildlife trade and habitat loss.

Poaching

Sumantran tigers are illegally hunted for their whiskers, teeth, bones, and claws that are used in traditional Chinese medicine as well as ornamental jewelry and souvenirs. Sumantran tiger deaths are often attributed to poaching for the illegal wildlife trade despite increased tiger conservation measures in Sumatra and the ban of trade under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park in Sumatra, Indonesia, designated a 386-square-mile block of forest to evaluate the main threats to Sumatran tigers—the estimated density of which was 2.8 tigers per 38 square miles with a rich prey base. Researchers observed a high number of people entering the park illegally with 20% of incidents involving armed poachers, who operated mainly at night to avoid the law enforcement patrol teams that were active during the day.

Habitat Loss

Throughout Sumatra, land has been cleared for agriculture, palm oil plantations, mining, illegal logging, and urban development steadily since the 1980s. In fact, between 1985 and 2014, the island’s forest cover decreased from 58% to 26%. Forest conversion further separates and isolates tiger populations, who require large areas to be successful in both breeding and feeding.

A 2017 study found that tiger densities were 47% higher in primary forests versus degraded forests and the total tiger population in Sunda declined by 16.6% from 2000 to 2012 due to forest loss. The study estimated that only two populations with more than 30 breeding females were left in their native range.

Human-Wildlife Conflict

Human-tiger conflicts can occur when tigers are forced out of protected areas and into human-occupied ones due to habitat destruction and fragmentation. Likewise, when prey numbers dwindle, tigers are more likely to venture into farms and developed land in search of other food sources. If starving tigers end up killing livestock, farmers may take retaliatory action to protect their assets.

In order to discover the main drivers behind human-tiger conflict in Sumatra, researchers from the University of Kent combined encounter risk with information about tolerance levels to tigers reported by over 2,000 Sumatrans. People’s tolerance levels were linked to underlying attitudes, emotions, societal norms, and spiritual beliefs, while the study found that the risk of encountering tigers was greater around populated villages than neighbored forests and rivers connecting tiger habitats.

Sumatran tiger in Indonesia
Fajrul Islam / Getty Images

What We Can Do

While living memory has already served the extinction of similar subspecies like the Javan tiger and the Bali tiger, there’s still hope for the tigers in Sumatra. Throughout the islands, steps are already being taken to ensure their survival.

Protect Their Habitat

Conserving the few remaining landscapes where Sumatran tigers thrive is essential to the survival of the subspecies. This involves not only protecting the land itself by establishing conservation zones in the areas with the highest density of tigers and viable prey, but also supporting legislation that addresses illegal poaching, logging, and encroachment in tiger habitats.

Organizations like the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) are working toward strengthening priority habitats in Sumatra, including Leuser-Ulu Masen, Kerinci Seblat, Berbak-Sembilang, and Bukit Barisan Selatan. These areas cover a total of over 26,641 square miles, representing 76% of the remaining Sumatran tiger habitat and over 70% of the total living population.

Research and Monitoring

Researchers and conservationists continue to conduct scientific research on critically endangered Sumatran tigers to improve conservation strategies and identify subpopulations or habitats. Satellite data is especially significant as it helps monitor forest cover change in tiger habitats to combat further efforts to convert land that’s suitable for tigers into other uses.

Wildlife rangers and other law enforcement agencies can also help strengthen monitoring and enforcement for illegal tiger parts.

In 2016, wildlife researchers measured habitat loss in 76 highly prioritized tiger habitats over the previous 14 years using data from the Global Forest Watch. They found that landscape monitoring and protection strategies had helped tiger populations recover, and that forest loss was much lower than previous estimates had suggested; 7.7% of total tiger habitat had been lost due to deforestation between 2001 and 2014—just under 30,888 square miles.

Reduce Human-Tiger Conflict

In Sumatra, many locals are reliant on livestock as an important source of income and food, so it is not uncommon for farmers to resort to hunting and killing individual tigers who they feel may be a threat to their farms. Maintaining the safety of critically endangered species is largely dependent on maintaining the sustainable livelihoods of the humans who share the landscape.

The aforementioned study conducted by the University of Kent also found that using the socio-economic predictions based on the research to employ preemptive intervention could have averted 51% of attacks on livestock and people (saving 15 tigers) between 2014 and 2016.

Working with local communities to increase awareness about the tiger’s importance to the local ecosystem, employing livestock management strategies, and educating on animal safety are all practical methods to help mitigate conflict between humans and Sumatran tigers. There are also more direct approaches, like building tiger-proof livestock enclosures and implementing buffer zones between urban areas and tiger habitats, that can have a positive effect.

The Global Environment Facility and the United Nations Development Program partner with local villages to implement effective approaches to prevent human-tiger conflict in Sumatra. They’ve already introduced several interventions through a series of projects based on four Sumatran tiger managed landscapes within national parks, including hosting human-wildlife conflict mitigation training targeting local government staff, veterinarians, and the local community. Between 2017 and 2019, 11 tiger-proof enclosures were built to protect livestock, while several wildlife conflict mitigation teams were formed to help monitor and manage conflicts in their respective areas.

What You Can Do to Help the Sumatran Tiger

  • Avoid products containing palm oil or wood that’s been unsustainably harvested. Look instead for forest-friendly products that are certified by the Forest Stewardship Council.
  • Support conservation organizations dedicated to preserving the Sumatran tiger subspecies, such as Wildlife Conservation Society Indonesia, and Fauna & Flora International.
  • Don’t buy souvenirs that are made from tiger parts, such as bone, teeth, or fur. Especially while traveling in Indonesia and neighboring destinations, ask the vendor where the product came from, what it’s made of, and if it’s legal to sell in the country of origin.