Searching for the last wild tigers
Crawling through the mud, showering under waterfalls and an impossible battle against an army of bloodsuckers. Our author ventured into the lowland rainforest of Sumatra, during an expedition to protect the last remaining Sumatran tigers.
‘What if you encounter a tiger? Slowly retrace your steps and use the emergency horn. Tigers always attack from the rear so never face away from the tiger.’ whispers expeditionleader Febri Widodo, coordinator for the tiger research programm of WWF in Indonesia, while we find our way through the jungle. Leeches have found my ankles in droves, my feet are sloshing in the muddy streams. Febri points out a big tree with the marks of a honey bear, which sharpened his claws here. We note it down on the data sheet. Other things we write donw are the sounds of Oenka’s, a type of gibbon and the sound of chain saws that permeate the forest, a sound we will hear on a regular basis in the coming days.
“What if you encounter a tiger? Slowly retrace your steps and use the emergency horn. Tigers always attack from the rear so never face away from the tiger”
Together with photographer Frits Meyst, two expedition leaders and twelve volunteers, I am in Rimbang Baling: the remote green heart of the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Our operating base is a simple wooden hut on the Subayang river, where I sleep in a dome tent made out of gaze, set on the veranda. You can shower outside under a cut-off water hose in an improvised cabin of tarpaulin, power is only available between six and ten at p.m. I look at my phone: no service. The next couple of days, we will live a life cut off from the outside world. Every day, two teams set out through the dense rain forest to search cells of two by two kilometres. Biosphere Expeditions together with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) has set up a research expedition, allowing tourists to contribute to the preservation of this critically endangered species through data collection. ‘ This year, we focus on the buffer zone,’ Febri explains. ‘In this vulnerable area along the river, where there is a lot of illegal logging, there is the largest gap in information, so here’s where we need the help most.’ The rain forest is rapidly turning into palm plantations. On the thirteen-day expedition, participants varying from a retired couple from California to a lawyer from Germany, set out daily to set camera traps and register traces of the Sumatran Tigers, their prey, poaching and deforestation. ‘It feels like just a drop in the ocean,’ Martyn says, an entrepreneur from Australia, while we cool down in the bright green river. ‘And yet, endangered species have been saved from these drastically low numbers before. I hope to do my part this way.’ I lean back in the water. Boats with inhabitants of the tiny villages along the river pass by. I wave, and the veiled girls give me a shy smile. Cars, bikes or roads are unknown around here. The Subayang river is Rimbang Baling’s highway, the aorta of the jungle.
At six-thirty in the morning – like every morning – I get into one of the narrow wooden boats to go into the jungle. We glide over the brown water. My backpack is filled with a poison extractor, GPS tracker, first aid kit, a field guide for paw prints, journals, maps and of course the emergency horn. The chance we will actually face a tiger is highly unlikely. Even Febri has never seen one in the wild in all his years as a ranger. ‘It is the smallest and most shy tiger in the world’, he tells us. ‘It is more important to look out for poisonous snakes, spiders and scorpions.’ I pull up my leech-socks a little higher over my knees. High walls of jungle tower over us on both sides. ‘Tigers avoid human activity. When they are starved, they might eat a buffalo once, but they will not show themselves easily.’
There are an estimated twenty tigers left in Rimbang Baling. The species is on step away from extinction
Sumatra is the last place in Indonesia where tigers still live in the wild. ‘The data we are collecting during this bi-annual expedition, form the last piece of the puzzle in the research of their habitat,’ according to Febri. He himself spends weeks in a row in the deep jungle with his team, to set camera traps. ‘We use the results to draw up a plan, together with the government, to protect this last refuge.’ In 2010, WWF set the objective to double the tiger population worldwide in twelve years. ‘Internationally, we estimate the numbers to have gone up from 3200 to 3900, but the population in Sumatra is still declining,’ the WWF-ranger says gloomily. ‘An estimated thee hundred tigers still live on the island, twenty of which in Rimbang Baling. The species is one step away from extinction.
World Wildlife Fund helps tigers by protecting them from poachers and angry farmers. This happens by moving governments towards creating special habitats for tigers, where they can live without damaging property. Protected areas like tiger reserves and national parks where no human activity is allowed. WWF also advises in the management of protected areas and the training of park managers.
Water buffaloes swim in the banks, wild boars run along the side and children from the villages on the river wave happily. I get off on a muddy bank, yellow-white butterflies fly around me by the dozen. Every day, we explore one or more defined areas of four square kilometres. Our main goal: setting up a camera trap in a strategic place. These camera traps give insights on how the tigers are spread out in the reserve. ‘That way, we know which areas should be protected,’ Febri explains. ‘Besides that, we study the prey that lives here, like mouse deer, Bornean bearded pigs and armadillos. We need this information to prevent conflict with the local inhabitants. When there is too little prey left, the tigers turn to their livestock. Or worse: to the plantation labourers.’ With a compass in one hand and a detailed, plasticized map in the other, I try to find a straight route through the dense terrain by using altitudes. When we see something relevant along the way, like a paw print of a tiger of signs of illegal logging, we write down the coordinates.
With my compass in one hand and a detailed topographic map in the other, I try to find the most logical way through the dense jungle
Sometimes, there is a narrow path, maintained by the labourers of the rubber plantations. More often, there are none. In that case, we slash our way through the spinose rain forest filled with starved bloodsuckers. Nature here is hard, not made for tourists. That is exactly what I like about it. I am amazed by the bright red dragonflies and carnivorous plants, while I hold myself up by grabbing lianas and roots sticking out from the trees. What a mighty feeling to be moving around in the habitat of the Sumatran tiger, but especially to contribute to its survival. ‘This is an exquisite place to set a camera trap,’ Febri says, while he moves around some leaves around a large tree trunk looking out unto a clearing. ‘Animals like to use human-made paths, so we have a good chance of capturing something here.’ I press the camouflaged box with the camera firmly against the trunk, while Febri attaches the buckles and wraps the chain lock firmly around the tree. The infrared camera with detection meter goes off as soon as it detects movement. ‘We use the images to identify the tigers based on their strips,’ Febri says. ‘ A tiger is only counted when we capture it twice. That way, we make an estimate of the population.’ I save the exact location in the GPS tracker, so the camera can be collected by the next team in a couple of weeks. ‘We also register other endangered species here,’ Febri continues, ‘like the clouded leopard, the sun bear, the Asian golden cat and the Malayan tapir.’
After a couple of days of training and relatively easy patrols, we set out with a little team to a deeper cell, over two hours away by boat from our base camp. The wind plays with my braid. We pass sandy beaches with water buffaloes and their calves. Palms, ferns and cassava trees make up the dense shores. ‘Ferns are really not a good sign,’ Febri says. ‘It is a sign of felled rain forest.’ We go ashore at an overgrown bank and climb three hundred meters straight up through overgrown terrain. ‘Watch out for lianas of the rattan,’ Febri warns us. ‘Their thorns are incredibly sharp.’ We also have to watch out not to grab hold of a dead branch or step on rotten tree roots.
Leeches feast away happily on my ankles and feet. I even have to remove one from my belly
The warm, humid air really gets to you. I crawl up on all fours, sweat running down my body in streams. Every few minutes, I hear a loud thud, followed by swearing. It is poor Martyn who, with his size fifty sandals, can hardly find any grip here in the slippery jungle. Leeches feast away happily on my ankles and feet. I even have to remove one from my belly. I stopped wearing the special socks. Because we navigate through many streams and squidgy mud, sometimes up to our crotch, you will walk around in wet socks for hours. ‘You’re better off offering your ankles anyway,’ Febri laughs, ‘otherwise, they will just go up to your neck. Leeches are very persistent in finding a little bit of skin.’
© Malte Clavin
Tonight we sleep in the rainforest, so that we can place another camera trap in this remote area. Exhausted we exit the boat to set up camp near a rocky beach along the river. Immediately I take a dive in the river to rinse the brown mud and dried blood off my body. The sandals stay on: two days ago one of the expedition members lost the tip of his toe to a snappy turtle. Towards the evening, the jungle that rises up from the green river, comes to life. Monkeys jump from branch to branch and swallows buzz the water. We are not alone here. Apart from the mini bees that try to enter my ears in droves, one can not find a more idyllic spot.
“Recently, a mother with her two playing cubs was caught on one of the cameras. That’s a good sign”
In the jungle behind us, I look for two apt trees to hang my hammock. We make a fire and grill freshly caught fish with chilli peppers. Febri tells us that the adjacent national park, Tesso Nilo, once had the densest tiger population in Sumatra, but at the last survey in 2013, only one was left. ‘Sumatra has 23 tiger populations, one of which in Rimbang Baling. In the surrounding areas, the numbers are decreasing, here they keep increasing. That is why they changed priorities. Recently, a mother with her two playing cubs was caught on one of the cameras. That’s a good sign,’ says Febri. In the future, we want to work on the connections between the current habitats, allowing for an easier crossing for the tigers. For now, we focus on placing the cameras and educating the locals. We try to offer poachers an alternative and lower the conflicts between villagers and tigers.’
That night, I think about the documentary we were shown during the training days, while I slowly sway back and forth in my hammock on the sound of toads and cicadas. One of the camera traps has captured a tiger. A few days later, she passes again, but she finds the forest around the camera to be in ruins. Her house has been destroyed, but where can she go? Habitats of animals all around the world shrink every day, and if this keeps on going, it won’t be long for the end to come for the Sumatran tiger. It does give hope seeing so many people put their best foot forward in helping the tiger’s survival. And I can’t think of a better way than an expedition like this one. An expedition that doesn’t evolve around spotting a tiger, but protecting its natural habitat. One where you crawl through the mud on hands and feet, plucking bloodsuckers of your belly and swim under waterfalls. One where you fall asleep in a hammock, in a rainforest where no tourist has ever set foot. One that will hopefully make a difference, and one to never forget.
“From the wet rainforest of Sumatra to the icy cold of Antarctica, via the mountains of Mongolia, I am not leaving home without my trusty Lowepro Whistler bp 450 aw camera backpack. It holds 2 bodies and 4 lenses plus my laptop with easy. It is the largest backpack within the specifications to be allowed as carry-on luggage on the plane. And the pack is also water resistent.”
Frits Meyst is a photographer for WideOyster and National Geographic