'Feared tiger hunter' to bee farmer: Indonesian poacher's change of heart

Indonesian authorities burn illegal tiger skins in March 2022.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

Indonesian villager Mawi, 74, knows all the secrets of ensnaring a full-grown tiger.

For five decades, he risked his life trudging deep into the jungles of South Sumatra’s Kerinci Seblat National Park (TNKS), setting up elaborate traps to catch and kill the animals.

Studying telltale signs of their path, Mawi would look out for claw marks on a tree, faeces, or paw prints, then carve a 20cm hole in the ground and cover it with tree branches. He’d then tie steel ropes across tree trunks so that when a Sumatran tiger crossed the trap, its legs would become entangled.

“The dirt you take out of the hole has to be thrown as far away as possible,” said Mawi, who would leave a similar trap at 10 to 15 different locations. “Tigers know what is fresh dirt and what isn’t. If they know if a hole has just been dug, they won’t walk past it.”

Mawi used to be a ‘feared tiger hunter’, but now he has changed his ways. 
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

Mawi was well aware of the risks. In addition to the threat of injury or death, he could have been jailed: under Indonesian law, capturing, injuring, killing, storing, possessing, maintaining, transporting, and trading protected animals, whether alive or dead, is punishable by up to five years in prison.

But he had married young and needed to provide for his wife and children. Mawi reasoned that without any land on which to farm, his prospects were limited.

Having learned the art of “tiger summoning” at age 14 from his father, he began selling tiger skins on the black market to feed his family.

“It’s not that I wanted to, but at that time I felt as if I had no other choice,” Mawi said.

An endangered species

While they once roamed in their thousands across Asia, today there are thought to be fewer than 600 Sumatran tigers remaining in the wild.

They are listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, with their decline attributed to a confluence of factors, including poaching as well as the increasing loss of their natural habitat in forests and jungle areas.

In 2016, there were thought to have been some 170 tigers in TNKS. Now, their number is estimated to be around 30.

But for a long time, villagers like Mawi knew no better. With six children and 11 grandchildren, he had bread-and-butter concerns.

Every few weeks, he would return to the forest to check his traps. On his last hunting trip in 2018, he caught a 2.5-metre male tiger. The animal could not move because of the way its leg had been caught in the trap.

Mawi estimated it must have weighed around 500 kilograms.

“I got a piece of wood to hit it with,” he recalled. He always avoided using sharp weapons or a gun to kill his prey, because it reduced the value of the skins.

“If they are torn, they aren’t valuable. Especially if they have gunshot holes in them,” he said. “You can deduct 1 million rupiah (US$70) off the price for every hole.”

Mawi usually caught perhaps two or three tigers per month.

In 2018, a tiger skin sold for up to 40 million rupiah (US$2,770). “I caught maybe more than 100 tigers over the years, the last one in 2018. Now I hear they sell for 80 million rupiah (US$5,569).”

It took a meeting with Iswandi, the director of Lingkar Inisiatif, an NGO tackling wildlife crime, to show him why he should stop.

Mawi works with the Smart Patrol Team to clear tiger slings in the forest. 
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

The hunter repents

When Iswandi first met Mawi, he used a pseudonym.

Accustomed to going in and out of the forest seeking out tiger hunters, he’d pass along the information he gathered to law enforcement officers, hoping for their arrests. Mawi’s fame made Iswandi determined to nab him.

Pretending he was an intermediary looking to sell tiger skins, he said: “When I met Mawi, he didn’t even have tiger skin to show me. But he was supposed to be a fearsome hunter who always got his prey. I had doubts.”

After that encounter, Iswandi stayed in the forest with Mawi for several weeks, realising that his approach had been wrong. Imprisoning hunters wouldn’t reduce their impact. Instead, he needed to change Mawi’s mindset, and help him find another source of income.

“Little by little, he was ready to repent his ways and give up hunting,” said Iswandi.

Gradually, he convinced the tiger hunter to stop the killing in 2019.

Mawi works with the Smart Patrol Team to clear tiger slings in the forest.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

Today, Mawi is a Sialang Honey farmer. He received assistance from Lingkar Inisiatif to help him make the transition to a new trade and market his products.

“I used to be a hunter because I was confused about how to make money. Now being a honey farmer is easier,” he said.

Mawi now helps other hunters to stop engaging in the trade. Since 2020, nine other hunters have followed in his footsteps.

In March, Mawi joined the Smart Patrol Circle Initiative team to help clear tiger snares set by other hunters in the park. Only a few snares were found, indicating a drop in hunting within the park.

Even so, Indra Exploitasia, the Director of Conservation of Biodiversity Species and Genetics at the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, said that hunting for protected wildlife in Indonesia persists.

“Until now there is still demand, so that supply is still being met. Requests don’t just come from within Indonesia, but are transnational,” he said.

Worse, there is a lack of personnel to guard the forest area, Exploitasia said, enabling hunters to continue being active.

On March 19, the Head of the South Sumatra Natural Resources and Conservation Center, Ujang Wisnu Barata, and his team destroyed 18 protected animal skins and other parts. Their haul included stuffed tigers and sun bears, deer heads and a stuffed goat. These pieces were set ablaze to prevent the misuse of wildlife paraphernalia and to act as a deterrent to those buying and selling them.

“The market potential is exploited by illegal wildlife trade syndicates offering high prices,” Barata said. “Actually, people often don’t want to hunt. However, because animals such as tigers are considered pests, and there is a price, people are interested in hunting them.”

To prevent this, his team is planning to tighten supervision and patrols. As well as develop education programmes for the public to teach them not to hunt protected animals.

“Because if this practice is allowed, the extinction of protected animals is just a matter of time,” he said.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.