The Sumatran tiger (Panthera tigris sumatrae) is one of the most endangered of all the tigers remaining on our planet today. It is classified as critically endangered and is at grave risk of extinction. Only an estimated 400 to 500 individual Sumatran tigers survive in the wild today.
The Sumatran tiger is endemic to the tropical island of Sumatra, the largest island in Indonesia’s Sunda Island chain. Sumatra’s dense but disappearing forests provide the critically endangered Sumatran tiger its last wild shelter. Today, Sumatran tigers are known to inhabit approximately 27 fragmented areas throughout the island, both inside and outside of formally protected wildlife reserves.
The Sumatran tiger is one of the three Sunda island tigers of Indonesia, which included the now extinct Javan tiger and Bali tiger. These tiger subspecies evolved and adapted separately on their island habitats when cut off by rising sea levels after the last Ice Age. In 2017, the IUCN (the International Union for Conservation of Nature) updated its tiger taxonomy, grouping all three as one tiger sub-species called the Sunda Tiger, scientific name Panthera tigris sondaica. The Sumatran tiger is the last living Sunda tiger, and urgent conservation efforts are needed to ensure their fate does not follow the same path to extinction.
The Sumatran tiger is the smallest of all the tiger subspecies alive today, similar in size to leopards and jaguars. The average length and weight of a male Sumatran tiger is 8 feet (2.4 metres) and 265 pounds (120 kilograms) while the smaller female Sumatran tiger measures on average 7 feet (2.2 metres) and weighs 200 pounds (90 kilograms).
The Sumatran tiger has dark orange fur and wide black stripes with some of its stripes dissolving into spots at their ends. It also has a higher frequency of stripes than other tiger species. The Sumatran tiger has a short mane of noticeably longer fur on the sides of its face, perhaps as protection against jungle plants.
The tiger is the apex predator of Indonesia’s forests, playing a key role in maintaining the balance of other species on the island. A study of the Sumatran tiger’s diet found that it primarily preys on four species: wild pig (one third of its diet), two species of macaque monkeys (over a quarter of its diet), sambar deer and barking deer. It will also opportunistically prey upon other animals including Sun bear, the great argus pheasant and other small mammals and fish.
One theory to explain why the tigers of Indonesia evolved to a smaller body size than other tiger subspecies is “island dwarfing” whereby animals confined to smaller island habitats evolve to become smaller over time to reduce their energy demands and help them to survive on the island’s smaller prey animals.
Sumatran tigers prefer forest habitats with dense understory cover, freshwater swamp forests and peat swamps. Forests converted to plantations do not have the necessary understory needed for tigers to hide and use the area as habitat. Tigers are particularly vulnerable to habitat fragmentation because they require expansive territories for hunting. Researchers estimated the Sumatran tiger’s home range to be about 150 miles, which is large even by tiger standards.
Deforestation is the main threat to the survival of the last wild tigers in Sumatra. Their home is located in one of the world’s most richly biodiverse landscapes, a hotspot for unique and threatened plants, birds and mammals. It is the last place on Earth where orangutans, elephants, tigers, rhinos and sun bears still live together. However, Sumatra’s low-lying rainforest habitat in is preferred by both the Sumatran tiger and many types of industries and agriculture, a tragic conflict for tigers and the wild spaces they cling to for survival.
This fertile and easily converted land has been deforested at break-neck speed, spelling disaster not only for the tiger, but for all of Sumatra’s incredible wildlife. Deforestation in Indonesia was initially driven by the coffee and oil industries in the early 1900s. This was followed by clearing for raw log exports, and then for the pulp & paper industry.
More recently since the 1980s it is the palm oil industry that has been responsible for continued deforestation. In the fifteen years between 1990 and 2005, a shocking 40% of lowland forest in Sumatra and Indonesian Borneo were cleared.
This explosion of deforestation and conversion of rainforest land across the last 30 years propelled Indonesia to become the world’s top producer of palm oil while destroying tiger habitat and bringing people and farmers closer into conflict with tigers. As a result of these pressures, the Sumatran tiger population has halved since 1978, down from an estimated 1000 tigers to less than 400 today. Tigers need large and connected forest areas to survive and recover their populations.
But their habitat continues to be fragmented and destroyed by palm oil, pulp and paper plantations, coal mining operations and road construction including highways that cut straight through remaining tiger areas. Climate change adds additional pressure, forcing tigers further north and into increasing conflict with people.
The illegal wildlife trade also threatens the Sumatran tiger, placing a high price on their body parts for the illegal wildlife trade, primarily for local markets. Tigers are also killed in retaliation by local farmers when they pose a threat to both their livestock and families. Between 2001 and 2016, about 15% of the remaining tiger population in Sumatra was killed due to conflict with people, mostly in fragmented patches of habitat outside of protected areas.
The Sumatran tiger’s prime habitat is the lowland forests. Human pressures have pushed them to higher mountain forests for refuge, even above 3000 metres. The habitat at this high altitude can maintain no more than 10% of the tiger population that could otherwise thrive in lower forest territory. In short, tigers are running out of wild space in the lowland forests that best support them.
Unless the current trajectory of forest loss and habitat destruction is halted, there will be no wild space left for tigers outside existing reserves in Sumatra, Indonesia. As much remaining habitat as possible must be conserved and existing protected areas retained, with corridors created to link them together where possible. Saving tigers will also mean saving other threatened species who share their threatened ecosystems including the Sumatran orangutan and Sumatran elephants.
The most crucial habitats for the Sumatran tigers are Gunung Leuser and Kerinci Seblat, where the two last remaining sustainable populations of Sumatran tigers are found. According to tiger experts, provided deforestation is halted and poaching is controlled, each of these parks could maintain over 40 breeding females and likely persist without supplemental breeding programs for over 200 years. This represents real hope for the future of Sumatran tigers.
A large project called Sumatra One, led by Fauna & Flora International (FFI) in partnership with Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and Leuser Conservation Partners (FKL) targets four priority Tiger Conservation Landscapes in Sumatra. Together these cover 69,000 km2 which is 76% of remaining tiger habitat and over 70% of the remaining Sumatran tiger population. The project strengthens the protection of the landscape, detection of tiger conflict, and creation of sustainable livelihoods for communities.
Additional tiger habitat was recently formally protected in 2016, with the creation of the Batu Nanggar Sanctuary in North Sumatra for the conservation of Sumatran wildlife. The Rainforest Trust is also working to save Sumatran tiger habitat in collaboration with local partner Yayasan Konservasi Ekosistem Hutan Sumatera (YKEHS), working to create three protected areas that will conserve an additional 200,396 acres. These reserves will protect lowland tropical forest habitat in the Bukit Tigapuluh ecosystem of Central Sumatra. With these local and international NGOs working together and in collaboration with the Government of Indonesia, there is hope for tigers and the protection of their remaining forest habitats.
To tackle poaching for the illegal wildlife trade, millions of dollars have been invested into tiger law-enforcement activities that support forest ranger patrols. The Indonesian government is also working to expand rehabilitation centers for tigers captured following conflict with people. These tigers are brought into rehabilitation, then released back to the wild fitted with a GPS tracking collar for monitoring. Indonesia increased penalties for poachers, who now face jail time and steep fines. But despite these efforts, a substantial market remains in Sumatra for tiger parts and products, posing an ongoing threat to all wild tigers.
An unexpected ally in tiger protection in Indonesia is religion. Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim country and in 2014 the top religious body announced a fatwa, or religious decree, against poaching. The fatwa forbids “all activities resulting in wildlife extinction” and was issued to help support existing national laws protecting endangered species including the tiger. This added an extra level of awareness that all endangered wildlife should be protected not only as a legal obligation but as a religious law as well.
Captive populations have been managed at Zoos around the world since 1937. There are an estimated 375 captive Sumatran tigers in Zoos around the world however all of them are the offspring of just 15 tigers meaning they are inbred and have genetic disorders. As such, conserving wild populations is the best chance for the survival of the Sumatran tiger.
Tigers are elusive cats that live solitary and largely nocturnal lives which make them very difficult to spot. Even park rangers and scientists who dedicate their lives to protecting Sumatran tigers rarely see them in the wild. Instead they see their tracks, their territorial markings on trees, their dung, and their images caught on remote camera traps. Your best chance to see a Sumatran tiger is in captivity. Make sure to visit only AZA accredited Zoos that contribute to tiger conservation in situ (in the wild).
If you’re going to Sumatra Indonesia, you can help support the parks that protect tigers by visiting as a tourist. The best places to try to catch a glimpse or sign of a wild tiger are:
- Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park on the southeastern tip of Lampung Province
- Gunung Leuser National Park in Aceh Province (estimated population 110 – 180 tigers)
- Kerinci Seblat National Park, Central Sumatra (estimated population 165 – 190 tigers)
Where do Sumatran Tigers live?
The Sumatran tiger lives only on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia’s Sunda Island chain.
How big is the Sumatran Tiger?
The Sumatran tiger is the smallest of all the tiger subspecies alive today, similar in size to leopards and jaguars. Males weigh up to 140kg (310 lb). By comparison, a male Bengal tiger can be over twice its size, weighing up to 325 kg (717lb).
Is the Sumatran tiger endangered?
The Sumatran tiger is one of the most endangered of all the subspecies of tigers that survive today. It is classified as critically endangered and is at grave risk of extinction. Today less than 400 individuals are estimated to survive in the wild.
What other threatened species share habitat with the Sumatran tiger?
The Sumatran tiger’s threatened tropical forest habitat is being destroyed for palm oil plantations. These same forests are also the last wild refuges for Sumatran Orangutans and Asian Elephants.
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