Rescuing Sumatran tigers from extinction

Melani, 15, one of 10 female Sumatran tigers from Surabaya Zoo now under intensive care at the Indonesian Safari Park (TSI), Cisarua, Bogor, for a digestive disorder, was dozing that afternoon.

She was awakened and roared when a TSI paramedic approached her cage to record her condition.

Melani is among the many victims of management conflicts at the zoo. She has survived while hundreds of other animals have perished.

"Melani is now in far better health. Her weight has increased by 8 kilograms and her fur is glossier," said Ligaya Ita Tumbelaka, a Sumatran tiger studbook keeper.

Based on the zoo's data, Melani had less colostrum (a source of antibodies) while breastfeeding, so she had a lower immunity.

"Upon her arrival at TSI, Melani was very weak and skinny, weighing only 45 kilograms due to her poor health. Both her fangs had also fallen out at her age," added Ligaya.

This condition was worsened by Melani's food consumption while she was raised at Surabaya Zoo. TSI director Tony Sumampau noted Melani's laboratory tests had indicated poisoning by meat that contained formalin.

"Melani is under strict veterinary supervision. When her condition is stable, she will go to the Sumatran Tiger Captive Breeding Center [PPHS] at TSI, Cisarua, Bogor," he said.

The centre, owned by the Forestry Ministry and the Association of Indonesian Zoological Gardens (PKBSI), is the only Sumatran tiger conservation area in the world.

Sumatran tigers are now listed as critically endangered animals, which is the highest in the category. The Global Tiger Initiative placed the Sumatran tiger population in 2010 at about 325, down from the 500 recorded in 1992.

The declining population is due to logging and the hunting of the animals for their bodies and organs such as claws, fangs, bones, skin and whiskers for trading. "This centre was established to rescue Sumatran tigers," said Sumatran tiger coordinator and president of the South East Asian Zoos Association (SEAZA), Jansen Manansang.

PPHS is in charge of rescuing the last subspecies of the three possessed by Indonesia, Bali tigers and Java tigers were declared extinct by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in the 1940s and 1980s.

The centre was built in 1992, measuring 18 x 21 meters, with 12 Sumatran tiger cages (each 3 x 4 meters), six mating cages (6 x 6 meters) and two delivery cages (2 x 3 meters).

"At present we own 35 cages," added Jansen.

Apart from breeding 30 Sumatra tigers, PPHS also has a laboratory and a tiger sperm bank. "We take care of tigers as victims of conflict with men and they can't be released to the wild because of physical handicaps and old age, including Tupan, sent here by Sumatra's Kerinci Seblat National Park [TNKS]," he continued.

Jansen said Tupan was found by TNKS personnel in critical condition, with five bullets lodged in the abdomen and bottom. Two of Tupan's fangs were broken and five leeches were stuck to the nose. After a process of surgery and rehabilitation, Tupan has been recovering since the TSI treatment started May 2011.

A Sumatran tiger from Aceh, Salamah, was taken to the centre by the TSI's rescue team with the right front leg amputated. Salamah's leg had to be cut off after being trapped by illegal hunters. When rescued, Salamah was still hanging from a tree with the leg beginning to decay.

Every day, Tupan, Salamah and nine other tigers now being treated at PPHS each consume five kilograms of meat at a price of Rp 20,000 per kilogram, excluding the cost of liquid nitrogen for the preservation of tiger sperm.

"PPHS has been operating for 10 years without receiving any subsidies. But during the economic crisis of 1998, PPHS was aided by an international organisation showing concern about zoo conditions," revealed Jansen.

According to him, since its creation in 1992, PPHS has turned out 35 young Sumatran tigers from the 53 bred at the centre. Several of them have died due to old age, disease or other conditions beyond rescue. Rajo, for instance, died from many trap and stab wounds in 2012 after being snared and speared in the protected forest of Lebong, Mangkurajo, Bengkulu.

Interestingly, the high conservation value of protected animals has made Sumatran tigers a medium of diplomatic communication to promote Indonesia's bilateral relations with other countries. Sumatran tigers have been sent to Australia and Japan under sister park or other arrangements.

The practice also involves Indonesia's other exotic animals like Komodo dragons and orangutans. The Indonesian government has also launched Komodo "diplomacy" with China to enhance bilateral ties.

In support of the Sumatran tiger rescue effort, several Indonesian journalists affiliated with the Wildlife Conservation Forum (Foksi) and musician Doddy Hernanto are going to be campaigning for this goal through music.

"We'll release an album entitled Save Panthera Tigris Sumatrae with songs written and sung by journalists. While inviting all parties to get involved in Sumatran tiger conservation, this album is also meant for cancer and autism therapy through animal sounds," said Doddy.

According to Doddy, the album, also containing instrumentals combined with the sounds of various animals, will be presented to a hospital in Surabaya for its patients. "After recording with tigers, we'll be doing it with dolphins. The animals won't be stressed because we have the technology for outdoor recording," he added.

Wiwiek Indriyani, an intern, confirmed the sounds of animals, including dolphins, could help cancer healing. "It's a kind of music therapy to make patients more relaxed. We've researched it at the Palliative Park in Surabaya. We plan to apply it to a hospital in Surabaya," she said.