The Rimbang Baling wildlife reserve is a 136,000 hectare patch of rainforest on the island of Sumatra, Indonesia. The reserve is home to a variety of wildlife, with the most charismatic being the Critically Endangered Sumatran tiger. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Indonesia established their Subayang Research Station just outside the border of the reserve in 2010 and have been working actively in area ever since, trying to preserve the forest and in particular the elusive Sumatran tiger. It is estimated that thirteen tigers currently live in the reserve.
Overall, the Sumatran tiger population has dwindled and currently only around three hundred remain in the wild. The dramatic drop in tiger numbers is a direct result of habitat loss and illegal poaching of tigers and their prey species. For the past three years, Biosphere Expeditions has been working closely with WWF Indonesia, supporting their monitoring and community outreach efforts in the region. This August, groups of citizen scientists from seven nations around the world helped the WWF tiger scientist Febri Anggriawan Widodo to survey the rainforest. “This year we focused on the buffer zone, which is a very important area as this is the region most vulnerable to encroachment by illegal logging. This is also where we have a gap in our data and help is most needed”, explains Febri.
Two groups of Biosphere Expeditions citizen scientists placed eleven camera traps in the forest along the northern buffer zone and carried out surveys of any evidence of tigers or their prey species, as well as recording any illegal logging and poaching activity they encountered. “There much illegal logging in the buffer zone. Every day we come across cut logs and boats towing those logs down the river” says Claire Howells, an expedition team member from England.
Ever since the Dutch colonised Indonesia, local communities have also relied heavily on rubber plantations for their livelihoods. Rubber trees can grow in amongst the native forest and as such have relatively little impact on the environment. However, with the invention of synthetic rubber, the prices for natural rubber have dropped and now the plantations are not enough to sustain the local population. With limited opportunities in the area, people are turning to illegal logging and palm oil plantations.
“Perhaps the most important work that we do is community outreach” explains Febri. “We need to educate local communities about the importance of preserving the rainforest, and we need to provide alternative income sources.” The Biosphere Expeditions teams have been supporting WWF in their outreach work, both by visiting local schools to tell children about the importance of the forest and its wildlife, and by carrying out village interviews to help understand the perception of tigers and the reserve in the local communities. While most of the people interviewed believe that tigers are important to Indonesia and should be protected, the team did encounter a man who wanted the entire reserve cut down and made into palm oil plantations.
Hopefully the work carried out by WWF and Biosphere Expeditions can protect the Sumatran tiger from the same fate as the Javanese tiger, which is now extinct. The Javanese tiger decline started in the 1900s when much of the island’s forest were converted to teak plantations. This meant that tiger habitat shrank drastically, along with their food supply. The last sighting of a Javanese tiger was in 1976, when much of the Javanese tiger’s food supply and habitat had already disappeared. The WWF office in Central Sumatra are currently working on a 10 year management plan for the Rimbang Baling reserve, which has been identified as an important tiger habitat. As part of the management plan, they are lobbying the government to upgrade the status of the reserve to National Park, as this would increase the amount of resources spent on protecting the reserve.
“This expedition has really opened my eyes to the problems facing the forests of Sumatra. I hope it isn’t too late for the tigers and I am proud to have played my part in its fight for survival”, says Matthew Kaller, an expedition team member from the USA.