Sumatra is the only place on Earth where you can find tigers, orangutans, rhinos and elephants all living together, though this may not be true in the near future.
The world’s sixth largest island faces an extinction problem. Indonesia, the country that rules the island, is a developing country with the world’s 4th largest population. This growing country is exploiting the species-rich tropical rainforests through deforestation, threatening the existence of many native species. These trees make way for new farmland to feed the growing population, or become palm oil plantations to boost the countries economy. Palm oil extracts are used in 50% of supermarket products, including pizza, chocolate, shampoo and soap.
The Sumatran Orangutan lives amongst the trees of the rainforests and it is thought that they barely make contact with the ground throughout their lives. It is expected that 14,000 orangutans remain, with the species restricted to only the northernmost regions of the island. This is a dramatic decline for the species that was once widespread across the island. Although poaching activities have decreased recently, farmers often see orangutans as a pest, so the new farms on the fringes of the rainforest have led to an increase in human-orangutan conflict. Although the species is restricted to the north of the island, the population estimate is double that of 2004, meaning the species still has a good chance of beating extinction.
The Sumatran Elephant is one of the three sub-species of Asian Elephant, with the population decreasing by 80% over the past 80 years. Only 2,600 are estimated to be alive in the wild, and that total is declining rapidly. Like the orangutans, the island’s elephants have suffered from loss of habitat through deforestation. It is predicted that elephant habitat has decreased by 70% during the current generations lifetime. Many farmers illegally destroy elephant habitat for agriculture, though the Indonesian government isn’t strictly enforcing the law. A wildlife expert for WWF-Indonesia is quoted as saying laws protecting elephants aren’t strictly enforced “Sumatran elephants could be extinct in less than ten years”. Elephants then feed on farmer’s crops, which angers farmers, who often shoot or poison the elephants. Elephants are also poached for their precious ivory and as the size of their habitat decreases, poacher-elephant contact will increase. The future of the Sumatran Elephant looks bleak, with almost all populations living within patches of rainforest too small to support future elephant generations.
Less than 400 Sumatran Tigers are thought to be alive today, half the population estimated in 1978. Sumatran tigers are the most threatened surviving tiger subspecies. Similar to all the species on this list, they are suffering from increased habitat fragmentation due to deforestation. The tigers of Java and Bali are already extinct, with many experts expecting it’s now too late to save Sumatra’s tigers from this fate. The Indonesian government has implemented larger fines and prison time for tiger poaching in a last ditch attempt to save the species, though demand for tiger skins and products are just as high as ever. As humans begin to live and work nearer the rainforest, tigers are increasingly coming into contact with human civilisation. Human-tiger conflict is becoming a serious problem, members of both species are getting seriously injured and dying. Livestock also becomes easy prey for tigers, leading to farmer organised retaliation attacks. Whilst the Indonesian government is trying to save the species, enforcing these changes is a real challenge, so the fate of the Sumatran tiger appears to be sealed.
The Sumatran Rhino has the smallest population of the species on this list, with around 250 expected to be alive in the wild. Although the rhinos of Sumatra also suffer from habitat loss, poaching remains the major problem. Many Asian communities use rhino horn in traditional medicines, and this demand means poaching is extremely profitable. The species now also is beginning to suffer genetically as rhino populations become smaller. This causes inbreeding, which means the species becomes less diverse and more susceptible to disease.
The WWF are working closely with people on the ground in Sumatra to try to prevent extinctions of the native species. “WFF strongly believes that the palm oil industry can grow and prosper without destroying tropical rainforests”. One way you can make a difference is to only buy products with Sustainable Palm Oil Certification. By doing this, you can ensure that the manufacturer doesn’t source it’s palm oil from fields created by deforestation.
Biology student at the University of York
Images by WWF