Currently, Sunarto is working with the WWF species program -- which is supporting his PhD research in Fisheries and Wildlife Science from Virginia Tech -- focusing on tiger ecology and distribution in the Sumatran province of Riau. Sunarto and his team are using camera traps to estimate the population of tigers and study their range and movement in order to help them survive. Sunarto is passionate about his research and believes strongly in its value to conservation.
"I cannot imagine getting as much information and knowledge about the wildlife in the region without the aid of the camera traps," he says. "As the saying goes, 'A picture says a thousand words.' It is much easier and faster to convince people the importance of an area or a species when you show them these pictures."
His project's specific research objectives include establishing tiger presence/absence maps; identifying core breeding areas for tigers; pinpointing hotspots for tiger-human conflict and developing or refining strategies to mitigate it in the Riau province; establishing density estimates of tigers and prey in different habitat types; and establishing a monitoring system for tigers and prey.
One of the biggest practical challenges of the tiger study is covering a large area (almost 12,000 square miles) with limited access and difficult terrain in a limited time. Sunarto and the Tiger Team typically go into the field for about ten days, using four-wheel-drive vehicles and trail motorbikes to reach villages and accessible target areas; in some cases they must use boats. Once in the target areas, the team moves about on foot, following existing human or game trails or creating their own. Often, they encounter people involved in illegal activities who are suspicious and not pleased with their presence.
Sunarto hopes to eventually track and monitor tigers using radio collars to document movement between protected areas -- currently, no such data exist for tropical rain forests.
He thinks that his work will help people in Riau live in a harmony with the wildlife, including tigers.
"I would like to see that the wildlife have enough room to survive and recover, while the people have enough and sustainable resources to live," he says. Within a shorter, time period, he thinks it is more realistic to expect that a few more conservation areas critical for the wildlife corridors are protected by government.