From our Sumatran tiger conservation volunteering holiday in Indonesia (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/sumatra)

The Sumatran tiger’s fight for survival

The Sumatran tiger’s habitat is threatened by illegal plantations and logging, forest fires, poaching, human encroachment and corruption. Listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List, and with as few as 400 estimated individuals left alive in the wild, it is facing a fight for its very existence.

Biosphere Expeditions has just finished its first year helping in the conservation of the Sumatran tiger in Rimbang Baling Wildlife Sanctuary. For twelve weeks, six separate teams of volunteers from across the globe covered 136 square kilometres to collect data for WWF scientist Febri Anggriawan Widodo, who has been managing a tiger research and monitoring team within the WWF Indonesia for the last three years.

Febri says that “the expedition’s research has provided a host of data critical for both the conservation of tigers and landscape management of Rimbang Baling Wildlife Sanctuary. With the help of our citizen science volunteers, we have collected information about mapping and the population distribution of tigers, co-predators and their prey, as well as some behavioural data. The expedition has also helped me to better understand the local community’s perspective on tigers, poaching and human-tiger conflict. We deployed camera traps and, during a total of 265 trap nights, captured hundreds of animal pictures including clouded leopard, leopard cat, Malayan sun bear, binturong, yellow-throated marten, pig-tailed macaque, long-tailed macaque, barking deer and wild pig. The Sunda clouded leopard (Neofelis diardi) is a co-predator of tigers that indicates Rimbang Baling is still home to five wild cat species based on previous surveys by WWF Indonesia. Also, we have camera-trapped potential prey of tigers such as wild pig (Sus scrofa), indicating that there is plenty of prey for tigers. Although no tiger pictures were captured, we have obtained tiger information via community interviews. There is good evidence that tigers still occupy the area with local people telling us about recent tiger signs around their plantation or in the deeper forest. None of this would have been possible without the help of my volunteer expedition team and I am very grateful for the assistance.”

With means of income few and far between and only three rangers available to cover a large area, blatant illegal activities such as logging, poaching and unlicensed plantations are evident throughout the more populated areas of the wildlife sanctuary, even if there are large swathes of remote forest – more than 70% – away from people left in the sanctuary. Nevertheless, a sea change is necessary in the populated areas and many villagers during interviews said they would welcome with alacrity alternative and legal means of generating income, for example through ecotourism. The consensus amongst the community was also that this would be highly beneficial for the next generation, who are the future of the area.

One such initiative has started already. The Batu Dinding Community Group was a crucial part of the expedition. It provided critical services such as boat and vehicle transport, food, cooks and local guides and other logistical support. Batu Dinding Community Group is an initiative set up by the WWF two and a half years ago to empower local people and provide alternative incomes through eco-tourism.

In addition to conducting surveys in the wildlife sanctuary, the expedition has also been active in local schools, delivering presentations to students and teachers about the tiger and its habitat, and what changes are needed if both are to survive. Febri adds that “it has been great to see our citizen science volunteers lead sessions and games with the students, expressing their joint passion for the rainforest across all language divides. A large factor in saving the tiger’s habitat is local education. With the head teachers backing us and the students themselves all keen for us build on this aspect of the project, we have had a very positive effect. We look forward to building on this next year.”

When asked at the end of the expedition “why just save the tiger?”, Febri responded “the tiger is like an umbrella. To save the tiger is to save its habitat. If you save the tiger all the other species survive too. If you save the tiger, you save the forest”.

Picture slideshow of the expedition:

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From our Sumatran tiger conservation volunteering holiday with tigers in Sumatra, Indonesia

From our Sumatran tiger conservation volunteering holiday in Indonesia (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/sumatra)

All good things come to an end, and today we to said goodbye to everyone who has made this expedition possible and draw a close on the Sumatran tiger expedition for 2015.

With 265-camera trap nights behind us, there have been some interesting results from the cameras we have collected. Clouded leopard, leopard cat, Malayan sun bear, binturong, yellow-throated marten, pig-tailed macaque, long-tailed macaque, barking deer, wild pig, and other animals. But sadly the extent of human impact within the wildlife sanctuary is unrelenting. We have caught on film people trying to kick our cameras off trees, in one case stealing the camera. Catching birds to sell in the villages. On the retrieval of one camera, the whole area leading up to it was cut down in the two weeks the camera had been in place. The loggers had not noticed the camera as they dragged timber past the traps we had set for the animals.

As a result no pictures of tigers were taken this year, but there is other, more circumstantial evidence, that they are still close to the villages. But we do now have a much greater understanding of what is going on the area. And we have made some really good contacts in villages further into the reserve for setting up sub-bases next year to access the harder-to-reach areas, away from humans, to which the tigers will have retracted too. And in several interviews in the last slot of this year’s expedition, as we have pushed deeper and deeper into the reserve, we have been hearing more about tigers in the nearby area in the form of tracks, roars and sightings in the last two months.

Thank you to everybody involved this year from the WWF, Batu Dinding and to all the participants who have taken time off to help with this cause. There are too many of you to mention by name, but you know who you are. None of this could have happened without you. Year 1 was always going to be the trailblazing year. Thank you for being trailblazers and preparing the ground for others to come after you in the years to come.

We battled leeches, spiders and things that bite, extreme rain, no rain, drought, the frustrations of not getting close enough to our quarry, pushed boats over rocks, worn wet shoes everyday, had fantastic blisters to show for our efforts and counted every last pig track in a 136 square km area. We were welcomed by the community, worked with them, passed on our enthusiasm  about the enchanting rainforest just over the fence to countless school children, had our photos taken, made friends and were part of something amazing.

Very best wishes

Anthony & the Biosphere Expeditions team

1 2 3 4


From our Sumatran tiger conservation volunteering holiday with tigers in Sumatra, Indonesia

From our Sumatran tiger conservation volunteering holiday in Indonesia (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/sumatra)

For the last couple of days, the sun has bearly made it through the smoke caused by all the slash and burn forest fires. Our expeditioners have been out in the haze collecting the cameras that slots 4 and 5 put in place.

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We’ve caught sun bears, binturong, pig-tailed macaque and leopard cat to name but a few, but no tigers. We’ve also caught teenage boys catching birds in cages, a man kicking one of our cameras out of place (although we then got a troop of macaque we would have missed otherwise). Sadly, when we got to one trap area we found our camera had been stolen, along with the post it was chained to!

We’re off to a local high school now. So far we’ve had good success with the visits to the elementary schools, so are keen to speak to the older students.


From our Sumatran tiger conservation volunteering holiday with tigers in Sumatra, Indonesia

From our Sumatran tiger conservation volunteering holiday in Indonesia (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/sumatra)

Our last team for this year have set out on an overnight trip in the centre of Rimbang Baling Nature Reserve. They are camping in a village called Aur Kuning, several hours away by boat. We’re looking forward to hearing how it was tomorrow.

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With the water still high, the rest of us have been out surveying stream beds. Yesterday we were walking with the water tapping on our chins as we held our bags above out heads making our way up a particularly wild part of the forest following the sand banks. We saw quite a few tracks and, delicately resting upon a boulder in middle of the stream, was a fresh scat that has been collected for analysis.

Today we came across a 700 m long wooden track for sliding timber from the hillside to the river to help with the illegal logging trade. Whilst it must have taken hundreds of trees to build, it was quite a remarkable feat of engineering.

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From our Sumatran tiger conservation volunteering holiday with tigers in Sumatra, Indonesia

From our Sumatran tiger conservation volunteering holiday in Indonesia (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/sumatra)

Finally it rained. And it rained hard. At around 01:00 Derek came in from his hammock to the base as his cover was dripping heavily, then Verona came into the base having not done up the zip on her tent. But other than a few slightly tired faces this morning, the good news is the river is up again. So we have sent a scout party much deeper into the nature reserve to see how far south we can get for a planned overnighter on Friday. The team came back with good news that we can stay in a village called Aur Kuning, several hours away. The village leader was interviewed and he’s says there has been tiger movement in the last two months nearby. He was also keen for us to use his village in the future for setting up a sub-base so we can survey the inner areas of the nature reserve for longer periods of time. The rest of us have taken advantage of the blank canvas in the stream beds to find some new tracks.

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From our Sumatran tiger conservation volunteering holiday with tigers in Sumatra, Indonesia

From our Sumatran tiger conservation volunteering holiday in Indonesia (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/sumatra)

Team 6 has arrived at the base safe and sound after their drive in from the city. The air is filled with smoke from forest fires in the plantations that lead right up to Rimbang Baling nature reserve.

This is the last slot for this year and there is a lot of ground to cover. We’ve spent the last day and a half going through data sheets, maps, compass and GPS work and also a presentation by Febri on the work he is doing and what he is hoping to achieve here.

We’ve just returned from a taster session in the forest, taken stridingly and are about to start the final two weeks of survey work…


From our Sumatran tiger conservation volunteering holiday with tigers in Sumatra, Indonesia

From our Sumatran tiger conservation volunteering holiday in Indonesia (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/sumatra)

The team from group five have all made it back to Pekanbaru safe and sound. Over the last few days the temperature seemed to be hotter than ever, so I’m sure the AC in the bus on the way back was a welcome break.

Yesterday we went to Tanjung Belit elementary school to give a presentation on the Sumatran tiger and their habitat. The students were all keen to tell us what they knew about all the different animals. And the headmaster spoke to us about how happy he is that our project is happening in this area, and he hopes we can all meet again soon and continue to work with the local community. The team of expeditioners (completely off their own backs) had brought a wide array of stationary, writing pads, frisbees, crayons, tennis balls and much more as gifts for the school, which was received gladly from the staff.

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It has been a busy two weeks, setting out and checking on the camera traps and surveying new areas. Hopefully the enthusiasm of the last two slots will carry on into the sixth as there is a busy two final weeks ahead of us.


From our Sumatran tiger conservation volunteering holiday with tigers in Sumatra, Indonesia

From our Sumatran tiger conservation volunteering holiday in Indonesia (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/sumatra)

With the team collecting more SD cards over the last couple of days, we have seeing lots of wildlife on the cameras. Yellow throated martens, sun bears, common porcupine, pig tailed macaque, wild pigs and some bird catchers with birds in cages on their backs posing for the camera. That was before a sun bear knocked the camera to one side to climb up the tree for a snack.

Today we set our last camera trap on a road that passes high over the mountains, where a local is said to have seen a tiger two months ago. It wasn’t the best ride ever bouncing around in the back of a pick-up truck in the heat of the day and we are looking forward to seeing what shows up on the pictures.

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From our Sumatran tiger conservation volunteering holiday with tigers in Sumatra, Indonesia

From our Sumatran tiger conservation volunteering holiday in Indonesia (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/sumatra)

Earlier in the week, on the bank of the Subayang river getting out of the boat, we saw a paw print of a wildcat, which got one of our days off a good start. Teams have been out to swap over the SD cards in some of our camera traps that were set in place from the last slot. We also secured a school visit for next week in Tanjung Belit, which is the community that has been assisting us through the entire expedition. While in the school Sharon (whose boots had far too many laces to undo) waited on the steps and drew in quite a crowd of students, who were showing off very loudly, how well they could count to ten.

wild cat print

Despite two heavy rain storms, the Subayang river is continuing to drop, making travel in either direction a team effort, having to push our boats over the shallow spots. The locals from Tanjung Belit decided that with the low water levels it was a good time to have a fish harvest that brings the whole community together for a frantic few hours of net throwing and spear fishing. For the team it was a great opportunity to talk to villagers who were all to eager to talk to them. Helen, Mike, Laura and Nicole managed to have a good talk with the head of the village, who was very interested in our project and how it could help the community in the future.

Our expeditioners have also been working hard doing surveys in the forest, setting out camera traps and collecting in SD cards. There has been a lot of animal movement on the cameras set by slot 4, such as wild pig, mouse deer, great argus bird, long tail macaque, leopard cat and sun bear. But the big thrill was seeing a clouded leopard caught by the camera set in cell AA130, set by Febri, Sugi, Sian, Nikki and Helga. While this is not our target species, Febri tells us that the clouded leopard is WWF’s secondary target for this area, as it is an important species that is able to manage ecosystems as a co-predator, after the tiger.

clouded leopard


From our Sumatran tiger conservation volunteering holiday with tigers in Sumatra, Indonesia

From our Sumatran tiger conservation volunteering holiday in Indonesia (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/sumatra)

Our fifth and penultimate slot is underway, and today we set out for the first time in the rainforest. The team took to navigation on the terrain fantastically. The river is also higher again after some recent rains, so travelling in the boats has been far easier than the last slot. Sadly early Monday morning, I found our rescued leopard cat in a bad way. Three of the participants (who volunteer in big cat sanctuaries) Donna, Sharon, and Natalya tried their best to help. But in the end the cat had been to weak for too long and slipped away. I think this has been a stark reminder to us of how fragile the balance between humans and wildlife is in this area, and how much more work needs to be done.


From our Sumatran tiger conservation volunteering holiday with tigers in Sumatra, Indonesia