A recent survey by the Wildlife Conservation Society has generated the highest resolution map ever produced of Sumatran tiger (Panthera tigris sumatrae) distribution on the Indonesian island. Amazingly, the population appears to be doing well compared with previous estimates. If this survey is correct, then the island of Sumatra may actually contain the world’s second largest population of tigers — India has the largest. Utilizing 97 percent of the suitable habitat remaining and occupying distinct forest ecosystems across the island, these creatures have demonstrated an incredible resilience to pressures from recent human activities in the area.
While it’s no small feat that the Sumatran tiger has managed to persist, the news isn’t all good. Though populations are higher than expected, the island has seen a 50 percent decrease in the number of tigers since 1998, with only around 3,500 remaining in the wild. Additionally, recent decades have seen a dramatic reduction in tiger habitat with over 80 percent of Indonesia’s forested land now lost. A mixture of logging and land-use conversion into rubber, oil palm and pulp plantations have been major drivers of this habitat loss, and have been responsible for the release of an estimated two billion tons of CO2 in the atmosphere every year. What’s more, only about 29 percent of the remaining available habitat for these tigers is currently protected. If trends in deforestation and forest degradation in Indonesia continue, the pressure may become too much for the tigers to withstand.
But at the same time, we may have just been given a golden opportunity to protect the ecosystems of Sumatra. Just as the world rallied behind the plight of the pandas in East Asia or the spotted owl in the Pacific Northwest, the Sumatran tiger is primed to become the new flagship species to promote conservation in this region.
Never underestimate the power of a symbol. The polar bear and its struggle against rising global temperatures quickly moved to the forefront of discussions on climate change and were integrated not only into scientific proceedings, but politics and pop culture as well. As a result, it’s hard to find a person who hasn’t heard of climate change these days, where 15 years ago it was little more than an urban legend for many people. The Sumatran tiger offers us an excellent opportunity to tie the image of a powerful, majestic and recognizable creature to the growing urgency for effective climate change mitigation and conservation measures.
But climate change isn’t a problem only for rare species or fragile ecosystems — its effects are having a dramatic impact on humans too. Recent decades have seen increases in storm intensity, in the frequency of extreme weather events like flooding, drought and sea level rise — all of which can have significant consequences for human populations. Forests help reduce these effects by offering protection from storms, nutrient-rich soils for agriculture, and ample biodiversity that can provide food and livelihood for millions of people. Climate change will undoubtedly prove to be the defining challenge of our time; only through conservation of forests and adaptation measures built around healthy ecosystems such as Sumatra’s forests can we create a sustainable future for man and beast alike.
So where do we begin? Well, fortunately for us, the foundation is already being laid. Efforts to introduce programs like REDD+, which aims to provide monetary incentives for developing countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and sustain economic growth by halting or preventing the destruction of their forests, are already underway. Effective tools like this and Blue Carbon, a similar program designed for conservation of coastal marine systems, were recently declared to be key elements of potential international agreements at the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) meeting in Cancun, Mexico.
We’re off to a good start, but the road before us is long and challenging. Climate change mitigation through ecosystem conservation is imperative if we are to safeguard the breathtaking biodiversity and unique cultures in this region of the world. The Sumatran tiger and the symbolic power it holds may yet be the key to generating public and financial interest in Indonesia.
Josh Richards works on CI’s climate strategy team.