South Lakes Wild Animal Park fund Sumatran tiger preservation team
Last updated 13:30, Friday, 07 November 2008
ON his return from Sumatra zoo owner David Gill tells reporter JO DAVIES how your donations are helping to save tigers in the wild
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SUMATRAN tigers live unseen in one of the wildest parts of the world.
Their tracks in the earth and incredible trap pictures such as these, brought exclusively to you by the Evening Mail, are evidence of their existence.
A dedicated team, funded entirely by South Lakes Wild Animal Park, in Dalton, is trying to stem the dwindling numbers of native tigers by persuading the Indonesian government that these globally significant forests need saving.
Yet even as they compile evidence to present to the government, the tropical rainforests of Sumatra are under threat from slash and burn clearance for profit.
But, says the park’s owner, David Gill, “if we weren’t doing it nobody else would”.
The park invests £180,000 a year in the Sumatran Tiger Trust, but as far as David’s concerned it’s a debt he owes one of the zoo’s most important residents.
Toba, the zoo’s first Sumatran tiger, inspired the conservation work and helped make the Dalton park the top tourist attraction it is today.
“When Toba came in 1996 everything went from being a little bud to flowering,” said David.
“She moved me to find more about Sumatran tigers and, once I did, everything snowballed.”
Using the park as a base, David founded the Sumatran Tiger Trust in the same year.
The park and the project have developed in tandem.
The team’s work has progressed from researching and protecting tigers from poachers to handling conflicts between humans and tigers.
The Indonesian team is now the official tiger rescue team in Sumatra.
From the original base in Way Kambas National Park in South Sumatra, the team has expanded to Dumai, in Riau Province and Bukit Tigapuluh “thirty hills” national park, in Eastern Sumatra.
It means they can release captured tigers in another area completely, widening the genetic pool.
Conflict between tigers and humans is escalating due to loss of habitat and inevitably both sides suffer.
Forty-one people have been killed and 21 injured since 1995.
Twenty-four tigers have been killed in retaliation – and revenge.
With fewer than 300 left in the wild it’s a race against time.
As deforestation blurs the boundaries between forest and civilisation the team works with villagers to try to avoid conflict situations.
Tiger attacks are not natural and never occurred before tigers were forced to live on the fringes of society.
David explained: “We capture tigers because they’re killing animals and threatening people so we put radio collars on them and release them. They’ve captured 12 up to now.
“Often the tiger causes trouble because it’s ill so it goes for the easiest food.”
The team has relocated seven tigers to new habitats and four have been taken to the sanctuary established by the trust and local government as a dedicated tiger conservation reserve and holding centre.
The thousands of hours spent under the forest canopy each year searching for endangered tigers is also an opportunity to carry out extensive site surveys.
Having spent time on the ground with the team last month, David said: “Whilst they’re out there looking for tigers they do all sorts of things like look for golden cats in the forest and look at the whole infrastructure of the forest.
“There’s frogs, flying squirrels, which are like massive kites flying through the air, the world’s largest single flower, the Rafflesia.
“I saw a leopard cat for the first time in my life. I’ve seen them many times on still pictures but never with my own eyes. And I’ve never seen a tiger there yet.
“There’s only five of the whole team who have seen a tiger but that’s the mystery because you see tracks all the time.
“They’re so elusive.
“We took the first shot of a Sumatran tiger in 1999. It’s 26 seconds of blurred footage.
“I’ve bought them 20 video still cameras and put them out last June/July. Since then we’ve been getting lots of video shots.
“Somebody claimed there was a tiger walking down the main road every night so we wanted to find out if it was true.
“As soon as it went dark the tiger came out. It was only probably an hour after dark. It wasn’t just the tiger but a tapir and other animals. At night it became a wildlife highway. It’s wonderful to be part of such an elusive animal’s life. But it’s frightening how rare they are.”
The motion sensor remote cameras are also proving a vital tool in stemming deforestation, which is happening at a ferocious rate.
Riau Province has the highest deforestation rate of any province in Indonesia. It has lost more than 4m hectares of forest in the past 25 years, representing almost two-thirds of the original forest.
“Most of the forest is sold and ready to be cleared,” explained David.
“In Indonesia the wood is the major income but they haven’t thought about what is going to happen in the future when it’s gone.
“But if any tiger is found in a forest area they’re not allowed to cut it down.
“Any information we get about tigers we send the team out with cameras, because once we’ve proven there are tigers there the government stops any development.”
David is also in negotiation with the loggers, seen by many conservationists as the enemy, to leave corridors of plantation amid the clearings.
If there are no corridors for the animals to move around the province the biggest concern in time will be interbreeding.
“They’re starting to realise if they don’t change their attitude to conservation they can’t sell their products overseas,” he said.
“They want to pay us to market the buffer zones for them to change people’s perceptions because they’ve had such a bad reputation for many years.
“In return they give us allowances to buy more cameras or vehicles.
“You’ve got to be very careful because you’re dancing with the devil in many ways.
“A lot of the purists won’t talk to these people at all.
“They are going to clear 80 to 90 per cent of the forest but if they leave 10 per cent that’s something.
“They have a tremendous amount of power and money and in this world, that is god.”
It may seem a futile battle but every time he returns to Sumatra, which is at least once a year, David is heartened by the team’s unwavering commitment.
He said: “The project out there goes from strength to strength and it’s the same team working for me since 1996 when I started it.
“I’ve watched them grow up, get married and I’ve seen their kids be born.
“In a way I’m looked at as being Uncle David.
“I’m so proud of the team. They’re wonderful people and I thank everybody here for working so hard and for being so patient.
“I do believe we’re having an impact.
“Even though we can’t stop the tide, we’re working to stop it in some areas and we’re certainly having a massive influence with the government.
“The admission costs for our charity are absorbed by my company so every single penny anybody gives us is used for practical work in the field.
“I work in six countries around the world but this is the big one. It takes a tremendous amount of money which we have to fund from here. It takes a tremendous amount of skill and passion from them there to do it and it’s having a tremendous result.
“Without us doing it how many tigers would be left?
“And it’s not just tigers we protect. We protect the people who live there.
“It’s future looks as solid and exciting as it can.”