Human Journey

Sumatran Tigers, Close to Extinction

This article is brought to you by the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP). Read our other articles on the National Geographic Voices blog featuring the work of our iLCP Fellow Photographers all around the world.

Text and Photos by iLCP Fellow Paul Hilton

A critically endangered Sumatran tiger. Photo: Paul Hilton for Greenpeace
A critically endangered Sumatran tiger. Photo: Paul Hilton for Greenpeace

As I raise my camera and look into the eyes of Agus Salim, I don’t see a tiger trader; I see a businessman, well-dressed and calculated; a man who provides a service for the ever-increasing global demand for wildlife and wildlife products. Evidence of that demand is lying next to him in the form of the skin and bones of two critically endangered Sumatran tiger cubs, carrying a street value of 100 million rupiah (US$ 7,595).

Agus Salim in hand cuffs is pictured next to skin and bones of two critically endangered Sumatran tiger cubs, carrying a street value of 100 million rupiah (US$ 7,595). Photo: Paul Hilton for WCS
Agus Salim in hand cuffs is pictured next to skin and bones of two critically endangered Sumatran tiger cubs, carrying a street value of 100 million rupiah (US$ 7,595). Photo: Paul Hilton for WCS

Salim belongs to a wildlife crime syndicate operating in and around the Leuser Ecosystem, one of Southeast Asia’s last great intact forests, and a world-renowned biodiversity hot spot where the region’s remaining rhinos, tigers, orangutans, and elephants coexist. 

But Salim is a small fish, and, therefore, expendable. He was set up by an undercover agent and arrested by a team from the special criminal detective unit of the Aceh police and the Wildlife Conservation Society’s crime unit during a three month investigation in Bireun, a northeastern coastal town in Aceh, Sumatra. 

Agus Salim in hand cuffs is pictured next to skin and bones of two critically endangered Sumatran tiger cubs, carrying a street value of 100 million rupiah (US$ 7,595). Photo: Paul Hilton for WCS
Agus Salim in hand cuffs is pictured next to skin and bones of two critically endangered Sumatran tiger cubs, carrying a street value of 100 million rupiah (US$ 7,595). Photo: Paul Hilton for WCS

Acting as a middle man, Salim previously sold tiger skins and elephant ivory for the notorious wildlife trader, Maskur, a resident of Takengon, a town right in the middle of the Leuser ecosystem. In 2014, Maskur was caught with parts belonging to Sumatran tigers, clouded leopard, and Asian golden cat, Sumatran mountain serow, and barking deer, sun bear skin, and teeth, helmeted hornbill casque. Although he was imprisoned for his crimes, Maskur served only 12 months and paid a fine of 10 million rupiah (US$759).

Police interview Agus Salim after he was found in the possession of tiger skin and bones. Photo: Paul Hilton for WCS.
Police interview Agus Salim after he was found in the possession of tiger skin and bones. Photo: Paul Hilton for WCS.

Given that Maskur was close by, and fled the scene when Salim was arrested, it appears clear the punishment meted out to him was no deterrent, and he immediately returned to his old line of business. Police, however, were able to track him using Salim’s phone, and quickly headed to Maskur’s hometown of Tekengon, some three hours from the site where Salim was arrested. By the time they got there, though, Maskur had  vanished. The police were eventually able to convince Maskur’s family to get him to turn himself in, but despite their efforts, he was still nowhere to be seen, so the elusive trader was promptly placed on a national wanted list. His whereabouts remain unknown.

Wildlife contraband on display before it’s burnt, Jakarta, Indonesia. Indonesia is a global hotspot for the lucrative illegal trade of exotic animals, in demand both dead and alive as trophy pets, for leather products and for use in Asian medicines. Photo: Paul Hilton for WCS
Wildlife contraband on display before it’s burnt, Jakarta, Indonesia. Indonesia is a global hotspot for the lucrative illegal trade of exotic animals, in demand both dead and alive as trophy pets, for leather products and for use in Asian medicines. Photo: Paul Hilton for WCS

The cohesive, multi-force effort within Indonesia to stop those profiting from the endangered species industry has been a long time coming. While it is having an impact on the trade, environmental campaigners stress success can’t happen if the task is left purely to the authorities. “Supporting law enforcement is part of our strategy to ensure the Sumatran tiger and other protected species are safe from poaching. This strategy needs cooperation and support from all sides; not only from law enforcers, such as the police department, and the Environment and Forest Ministry, but also from society itself,” says Dr Noviar Andayani, of the Wildlife Conservation Society, Indonesia.

Wildlife contraband is burnt by the National police and the Ministry of Forestry, Jakarta, Indonesia. Indonesia is a global hotspot for the lucrative illegal trade of exotic animals, in demand both dead and alive as trophy pets, for leather products and for use in Asian medicines. Photo: Paul Hilton for WCS

Conservationists put the number of Sumatran tigers in the wild at around 300. It’s a devastating statistic, particularly given that Indonesia has already lost the Bali and Javan tiger which were both hunted to extinction. Without a serious overhaul of its present laws on wildlife crime, Indonesia can presume that the Sumatran tiger is in its dying days. It is a heartbreaking notion, but with the right level of deterrence and education, it is one that does not have to become reality.

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