Friday, January 21

Here today, gone tomorrow – Sumatran tigers


Sumatran tigers are the smallest tiger species in the world.

AS its very name suggests, Panthera tigris sumatrae, this smallest tiger species in the world is native to Sumatra. During the Pleistocene Ice Ages (about 1.4 million to 11,000 years ago) land bridges existed as the sea levels fell, thus linking almost all places in Southeast Asia. However, with the subsequent melting of the Eurasian ice sheets, the sea levels rose, thus creating the islands of Sumatra, Java and Bali amongst thousands of others.

Sadly, Javanese and Balinese tigers are now extinct but Sumatran tigers still hang on by a thread. With a length from nose to tail of up to 2.5 metres, with males weighing up to 140kg and females 30kg less, despite its size its roar can be heard over 3km!


Living as an insular population, these tigers range from coastal lowland forests to up to 3,000 metres above sea level in northern Sumatra. Forty-one years ago, it was estimated that their total population was roughly 1,000 animals. Seven years later, when Indonesia declared these animals a protected species, in 26 registered areas, 800 tigers were observed.

Sumatran tiger cubs at play. Several zoos and wildlife parks globally have been successful in their Sumatran tigers’ breeding programmes.

Each tiger has a unique stripe pattern and thus they can be easily identified in photographs. In 1992, about 500 tigers were located in five national parks and two protected areas. Today, there may be less than 400 Sumatran tigers in the wild with perhaps another 50 in wildlife parks or zoos worldwide.

Preferring primary and secondary forest environments, they tend to avoid oil palm and acacia plantations, unless they can smell the whereabouts of wild pigs in the latter areas. They tend to thrive best in the centres of forests and, in Sumatra, such environments have steep slopes and dense undercover vegetation through which they can stealthily stalk their prey.

Food sources

Research at the Bukit Barisan National Park has identified that the tigers’ main source of food included banded pigs, greater and lesser mouse-deer, Indian and Sambar deer, together with Malayan porcupines, tapir, and pig-tailed macaques. As these tigers are at the apex of the food chain pyramid so, as their numbers decrease, changes will be seen in their habitats when their prey-populations increase.

Human threats

There are three main threats:

  •  The ever-increasing global consumption of palm oil which has risen by 500 per cent over the last 10 years. With Southeast Asian countries quite understandably responding to these current demands, swathes of lowland and lower montane forests have been replaced by plantations. Areas of continuous forests, ideal for tigers, have been reduced to fragmented forests.
  •  Illegal logging has exacerbated this process leading to the tigers’ prey deprivations.
  •  Illegal hunting and poaching for black market sales in tigers’ parts to supply the non-scientifically proven medicine trade, souvenir market stalls, and tiger’s skin floor rugs, jewellery shops and for the macabre tigers’ skulls, teeth, bones and even whiskers, seen as good luck charms!

The Indonesian government has made every attempt to prevent the illegal killing of tigers without government permission and has established six national parks and conservation areas on Sumatra. Regrettably, it is thought that farmers are the main hunters of tigers as they prey on livestock.

Threats to humans

Inevitably, when people encroach on whatever species of tigers’ habitats, disaster is waiting to happen. In India and in Bangladesh, tigers are often seen in villages and even in towns hunting stray cats, dogs, and even people. Parts of Sumatra are no different, for deprived of their natural prey tigers seek out warm-blooded mammals.

Ever-increasing numbers of human deaths are recorded by Sumatran tigers’ attacks. From 1987 to 2010, 183 people were killed and over 1,000 livestock eaten. As a consequence, at least 500 tigers were hunted to death. Let’s be honest to ourselves, our territories were invaded in Europe and in Asia in the 20th century. What was our response? Simply we fought for survival to secure our rightful ownership! Are Sumatran tigers any different?

Successful conservation

Indonesia’s Sumatran Tiger Conservation Project has addressed the declining wild population of tigers by locating and securing forested habitats in which the animals may live. Over the last 10 years, the equivalent of over RM820 million has been spent on tiger protection work, to include forest ranger patrols in National Parks and Conservation Areas.

It is hoped that, through these regular patrols, the tiger population will have doubled by 2020. Poachers still remain elusive but, with the use of aerial drones they are being tracked down and full justice will be accorded. It is through such governmental intervention, fully supported by the populace and conservationists, that this programme can be accomplished together with a sperm bank established at Taman Safari.

Elsewhere in the world, several zoos and wildlife parks in Europe, Australia, and the USA have been successful in their Sumatran tigers’ breeding programmes. In Sydney’s Taronga Zoo, in 2011, two males and one female were born. In February 2019, two females and one male were born there. At London Zoo, Jae Jae (male) and Melati (female) were the proud parents of two cubs in 2013, and again proudly producing two more cubs in 2016. In 2017, at Orlando, Florida’s Disney Animal Kingdom, yet another two cubs. These are but snapshots of successful breeding programmes worldwide of, alas, Sumatran tigers in captivity.

Familiarity breeds contempt

Such an adage may be true but, for captive tigers, I would add that, in 2019, unfamiliarity leads to even greater contempt! There have been several tiger attacks on their keepers in British zoos in the last six years. Sadly, two keepers lost their lives in different zoos; one keeper by a Sumatran tiger and the other by a Malaysian tiger. Both species of tiger have a downward bite-force of 450kg. In both cases, each tiger was spared the inevitable.

In 2018, as part of a breeding programme at London Zoo, the aforementioned male tiger was taken to a Paris zoo and replaced by a seven-year-old male from Copenhagen Zoo. The latter, Asim, a stud tiger, and Melati (the resident breeding female) were kept apart in adjoining compounds for 10 weeks. Alas, on Feb 8, 2019, they were released together into a common enclosure where Asim killed Melati! Asim has been spared.

It was hoped that, if they had bred, they and their cubs would occupy a brand new RM16 million open compound, which replicated an Indonesian Sumatran forest environment. Perhaps we think that as humans we know the psychology of those we love, but are we really mind readers?

May successful breeding programmes of Sumatran tigers still continue around the world, with the prospect that their offspring will, after a period of rehabilitation, be eventually be released into their natural environments in already established protected areas in Indonesia.

In the field of education for now some 52 years, I have been fully aware of the fact that, whatever academic qualifications I may hold, there are always much more intelligent students and teachers that I have had the privilege of working with. The same principle applies to the preservation and conservation of Sumatran tigers whether in breeding programmes in captivity or in the wild.

We think we may know animal’s minds but do we even really know each other? The timeline of such a wonderful species of carnivore is fast running out and we must realise that they occupied our only planet long before us. Later, through necessity, we began to develop our economies, albeit, in geological time, with short-lived gains. The survival and protection of such wildlife presents us all with a complex dilemma but it is not unsolvable.

For further reading on Asian tigers, look for the Nature Matters column on June 12, 2016 – ‘Are tigers burning bright in Malaysia?’ at