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Nowhere to Hide: New Study Finds Human Activities Pushing Sumatran Tigers Closer to Extinction

Washington, DC - A new study found that Sumatran tigers are nearing extinction as a result of human activities, particularly the conversion of natural forests into plantations for palm oil and pulp and paper.

The study, conducted by Virginia Tech and World Wildlife Fund (WWF), is the first of its kind to systematically investigate the use of different land cover types–plantations as well as natural forests–for tiger habitat.

“Big palm oil and pulp and paper companies are cutting down tiger habitat so fast that tigers have nowhere to hide,” said the study’s co-author Dr. Sybille Klenzendorf, head of WWF’s species program. “This study is a reminder of just how important it is for us to protect the natural forests that tigers and other animals rely on.”

Published in PLoS ONE on January 23, the study was led by Sunarto, who earned his Ph.D. from Virginia Tech. The study was a collaboration between the university and WWF, and received support from the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry.

The authors found that Sumatran tigers strongly prefer forests over plantations of acacia and oil palm trees, and tend to avoid plantations altogether unless they contain thick ground-level vegetation and have extremely low levels of human activity.

 “As ambush hunters, tigers would find it hard to capture their prey without adequate understory cover,” said Sunarto, who is now a tiger expert for WWF-Indonesia. “The lack of cover also leaves tigers vulnerable to persecution by humans, who generally perceive them as dangerous.”

About 70 percent of tiger habitat in Sumatra remains outside protected areas. The preservation of such habitats, which requires support from government, landowners, and concession holders, is critical for the conservation of the species, the study authors emphasized.

“Even with current legal protection for the species, tigers are not doing well in many places, especially those outside protected areas,” Sunarto said. “As long as forest conversion continues, tigers will require active protection or they will quickly disappear from our planet.”

The study concludes that in order to protect tigers, it is critical to stop the clearing of all remaining natural forests for plantations. With adjustments in management practices in existing plantations to include more understory and riparian forest corridors, tigers could use a mosaic of forest patches across fragmented landscapes.

 “We hope that plantation managers and concession owners can use the recommendations of this report to apply best management practices to further protect Sumatran tigers from extinction,” said Anwar Purwoto, director of the Forest, Freshwater, and Species Program at WWF-Indonesia.

Earlier this month, WWF issued a report stating that American companies and consumers are inadvertently contributing to Indonesian rain forest and tiger habitat destruction by buying Paseo and Livi brand toilet paper and other tissue products made with fiber from Asia Pulp & Paper, the fifth-largest tissue producer in the world. APP and its affiliates have pulped more than 5 million acres of natural forests in Sumatra, land that is essential to the survival of tigers and other species.