Palm oil plantations are driving Sumatran tigers out of their habitats and closer to extinction.
A camera trap captures a photo of a wild Sumatran tiger. [Photo by Arddu/Flickr]
It’s estimated that at present, there are only about 400 to 600 Sumatran tigers in the wild. They live on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, and are the smallest of the nine original tiger subspecies. They’re genetically and morphologically distinct from the other subspecies of tiger.
Tigers on the neighboring islands of Bali, Java, and Singapore have already gone extinct in the 20th century, due primarily to the loss of their habitat. Things are now looking dire for the Sumatran tigers as well.
In 2008, Sumatran tigers were placed in the Critically Endangered category of the IUCN Red List. The subspecies’s population decreased by 17 percent since the year 2000, most likely due to deforestation and habitat loss. A team of researchers spent a year studying and tracking Sumatran tigers and found that the population is in danger of going extinct.
A wild Sumatran tiger looks over an oil palm plantation. [Photo by Matthew Scott Luskin]
Between 2000 to 2012, 17% of tiger habitats were torn down to make way for palm oil and acacia plantations. Palm oil plantations, in particular, cover almost 30 million acres of land in Indonesia. It also doesn’t help that even though Sumatran tigers are smaller, they need a larger space to range than their larger tiger cousins.
A new study has now found that there are only two Sumatran tiger habitats with viable populations left: Gunung Leuser National Park in the north, and Kerinci Seblat National Park in the south. About 70 years ago, there were thought to be 12 habitats.
Burning the rainforest to make way for an oil palm plantation [Photo by Peter Prokosch]
The researchers focused on the number of fertile females still remaining, which is an important factor in determining the tigers’ chances of survival. Gunung Leuser has 48 breeding females, while Kerinci Seblat has 42.
The researchers also used the photos and videos of infrared camera traps to identify individual tigers by their unique stripe patterns. This information, in combination with data from 17 tiger population estimates, was able to tell researchers that there are twice as many tigers in primary forests compared to denuded forests.
What this means, therefore, is that keeping these primary forests intact is important. If the tigers lose more of their habitats, they may lose more of their population. Fortunately, there may be hope yet for these critically endangered tigers.
Does the Sumatran tiger still have hope for bouncing back? [Photo by AFP/Getty Images]
Conservation groups, the Indonesian government, and local and international groups are working to preserve the country’s forests, including the ones that tigers live in. Conservation groups also worked on pressuring oil palm companies to stop deforestation, and in 2014, these companies finally adopted a no-deforestation policy.
However, these plantations have already done a lot of damage. “Flying over Sumatra is like flying over an ocean of oil palm plantations,” says Mathias Tobler, one of the researchers. “There’s no question that it’s the main driver of deforestation."
However, the researchers are looking on the bright side, and are quite optimistic that the Sumatran tiger will live on. The tigers in Gunung Leuser National Park and Kerinci Seblat could be instrumental in restoring the subspecies’s population on the island.
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