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The hunt for Sumatra's killer tigers

By Lucy Williamson
BBC News, Jambi province, Sumatra

Tiger rangers
Sumatra's tiger rangers track and catch the endangered animals

Fear often seems to begin with a road.

Driving into tiger territory, all voices in the jeep gradually fell silent.

The only sound was the thick vegetation swishing against the windows as we lurched along the muddy track.

The forest in Jambi province, Sumatra, is the site of Indonesia's newest conflict. Tigers are killing people here at the rate of one a week.

As their forests disappear under loggers' saws or to make way for plantations, Sumatra's endangered tigers are, quite simply, turning to humans for food.

We were on our way to the site of one attack. Soon, the tell-tale signs of illegal loggers appeared out of the forest - piles of wood, neatly stacked in a small clearing. We pulled up, and started down their tracks into the forest.

For Indonesia's tiger catchers, this is their daily commute.

In just a few months, these forest rangers have gone from chasing illegal loggers to finding and catching the tigers who are killing them.

And even now, their guns and camaraderie do not completely hide their fear.

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Hunt for Sumatra's killer tigers

Victims or thieves?

The silence was thick with it as we made our way into the forest.

Everything at the illegal logging site was pretty much as Khoiry left it before he was attacked and killed.

Salma the tiger (pic courtesy of  Zoological Society of London)
Last month the rangers managed to track down a tiger they named Salma

Felled trees were piled up ready for transport out of the forest, the ground was thick with sawdust.

There were no footprints left for the team to track, and no sign of a tiger.

But in terms of why these attacks are happening, chief tiger ranger Nurazman Nurdin said this site was right on target.

"The main problem is illegal logging," he explained. "It's destroying the tigers' habitat. This place, for example, they don't have a permit for what they're doing here - it's illegal."

It might be illegal, but for the people living here the punishment seems disproportionate.

In one village, we found Supari on the front porch of her house. She lost her husband and son in a tiger attack here only a few weeks ago.

She buckled with tears as she told us how they were killed while cutting wood just a short distance from the house.

But Supari's son-in-law Coko says it is wrong to blame them for what happened.

"We're victims, not thieves," he told me. "We go to the forest to put food on the table. You can't blame us for this conflict with the tigers."

Vanishing territory

Hundreds of kilometres away in the provincial capital, district chief Burhanuddin Hanir agreed.

He said this latest conflict was probably the result of a new logging company which started operating nearby - with official permission.

Coko and his mother-in-law
Relatives of the victims said they had to cut down the forests to earn a living

But why was a logging company given permission to operate in the tigers' dwindling territory?

"We only found out there were tigers in the area after the investors started chopping down the trees," he said.

"Now we have more regulations to protect the tigers' habitat. But the problem is that the tigers are already disturbed and angry."

As in many parts of Indonesia's vast territory, regulations are one thing - enforcing them is quite another.

There could be as few as 250 tigers left here, but Sumatra's forest is now so depleted it is struggling to support even this tiny number.

Back at the attack site, ranger Nurazman Nurdin sounded dejected.

He told me there was no long-term plan - the rangers were just trying to keep the humans and tigers apart.

It is dangerous work - and not a job he enjoys.

But Sumatra's tiger catchers are up against more than just hungry tigers. They're battling the world's demand for Indonesia's forests, and the timber and paper and palm oil they provide.

These are lucrative exports for Indonesia. The question is whether their tigers are worth any more.



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