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Dim hope for the Sumatran tiger

Tigers, which once roamed across Sumatra, have now become effectively marooned on a few disconnected national parks and are on the verge of disappearing

December 06, 2013 12:27 am | Updated 12:27 am IST

Two Sumatran tiger cubs, a male and a female play on a set of stairs.

Two Sumatran tiger cubs, a male and a female play on a set of stairs.

Indonesia might conjure up idyllic images of families of orangutans gambolling amidst lush tropical rainforest, but the reality is starkly different. Aerial photographs of the once-densely forested islands of Sumatra and Kalimantan (Borneo) reveal large tracts of bald, scarred earth, and investigations undertaken by environmental organisations like Greenpeace unearth orangutan graveyards where the skulls and remains of these apes lie scattered like debris.

Every one of the country’s once abundant megafauna — the tiger, the rhinoceros, the elephant and the orangutan — is today classified as critically endangered. The main cause of the dramatic whittling down in the numbers of these animals is not poaching as much as the ravaging of their habitat — Indonesia’s forests — by mining, pulp paper interests, and most specially, by the palm oil industry.

While there is disagreement about the exact rate of deforestation in Indonesia, it is amongst the highest in the world. In 2008, the country was listed by the Guinness World Records for having the fastest rate of deforestation globally. New studies supporting similar claims abound. Just last month, a report in the journal, Science , claimed that while Indonesia lost some 10,000 square kilometres of forest every year between 2000 and 2003, this number rose sharply to 20,000 per annum between 2011 and 2012.

Political will in conservation

The Indonesian authorities dispute these findings, insisting that deforestation has largely been arrested from a high of 35,000 a year between 1996 and 2003, to around 4,500 per year, more recently.

But regardless of what figures one plumps for, some facts are well established. The World Wildlife Fund Indonesia’s Tiger and Elephant species programme coordinator, Dr. Sunarto, says that the island of Sumatra has lost more than two-thirds of its natural lowland forest — the most suitable habitat for elephants and tigers — over the past 25 years. As a result, elephant numbers have approximately halved from an estimated 5,000, to between 2,400 and 2,800, during the same period.

Tigers, which once roamed the island, have now become effectively marooned on a few disconnected national parks and are on the verge of disappearing. Indonesia has already lost two species of tigers, the Javan and Bali tigers, and there is real concern that the last remaining species, the Sumatran tiger, is set to follow suit. In the 1970s, there were around 1,000 Sumatran tigers in the wild, but today less than 400-500 survive. Dr. Sunarto contrasts this dwindling with India, where the 300 Royal Bengal tigers recorded in 1973 have since swelled to around 1,500. He credits the efforts of the Indian government in setting up “Project Tiger,” indicating a political will that he claims is lacking in Indonesia.

Whether this political will is either as strong or as efficacious as presumed by tiger conservationists in Indonesia is debatable, but even if one were to concede the point, India’s role in Indonesia’s fight against the extinction of its megafauna is far from that of a straightforward model to be emulated.

Indian import of palm oil

India is in fact the world’s largest importer of palm oil, the very resource which is behind much of the habitat destruction that threatens Indonesia’s large mammals. According to Greenpeace, the palm oil sector was the single largest driver of deforestation in the 2009–2011 period, with identified concessions accounting for about a quarter of forest loss. Indonesia is the world’s largest producer of palm oil and the industry accounts for 11 per cent of Indonesia’s export earnings, second only to oil and gas.

India overtook China in 2009 to emerge as the top importer of palm oil and currently accounts for about 19 per cent of the global trade. Burgeoning Indian demand, which has doubled in recent years, is one of the primary driving forces behind the overall boom in palm oil production which reached 50 million tonnes in 2012, almost double the amount produced a decade earlier.

Palm oil is used as cheap cooking oil in a variety of processed foods and in a range of cosmetics. So, whenever a young woman reaches for a bright new shade of lipstick at a make-up counter of a shop in Mumbai, or a call centre in Bangalore orders in a big batch of baked goods as an office treat, it is quite likely that these seemingly innocent actions contribute to the environmental devastation being wrought in Indonesia.

The number of Indian companies that import and use palm oil in their products is vast, and includes big names like Godrej, Emami, Adani Wilmar and VVF Ltd. In a report, Frying the Forest , released last year, Greenpeace demonstrated how Indian companies like Ruchi Soya bought oil from known environmental offenders, like Indonesia’s Duta Palma. A palm oil growing and exporting group, Duta Palma has repeatedly been found to be in violation of Indonesian laws, including operating without a concession title, illegal clearance of deep peatlands and intentional burning of forests to make way for oil palm plantations.

Sustainable standards

According to Avimuktesh Bharadwaj, forest campaigner with Greenpeace India, no Indian company has yet committed publicly to sourcing palm oil from guaranteed zero deforestation sources. Adani Wilmar is on record stating that sustainable palm oil “at competitive prices” is “inaccessible” in India due to the lack of procurement infrastructure. The only company to respond directly to the Frying the Forest report was Godrej, which reiterated its adherence to Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) standards.

The RSPO is a voluntary palm oil industry body formed in 2004 with the objective of promoting the growth and use of sustainable oil palm products. An estimated 40 per cent of global palm oil production and use is accounted for by RSPO members. RSPO standards have however been widely criticised for not doing enough to prevent environmental destruction.

Until this year, they did not prohibit clearances of peatland, for example. Moreover, these standards are known to be regularly flouted by a number of RSPO producers. Crucially, the issue of third-party supply is not addressed, so that members can freely trade palm oil with non-members that have made no sustainability commitments at all.

Some significant policy initiatives to stem this environmental destruction have been forthcoming, such as a two-year moratorium on forest-clearing concessions announced in 2011 and extended for an additional two years, earlier this year. However, the moratorium excludes concessions leased before May 2011, and does not protect secondary forests.

Deforestation, both legal and illegal, continues apace despite promises and policies, driven by the powerful commercial logic of palm oil demand and supply. Ultimately, the survival of the tiger among other fauna in Indonesia is contingent on not just better national laws, but on consumers in countries like India realising the link between their chocolates and face cream and the destruction these products engender in geographically distant places. For the Sumatran tiger, this is at best, a dim hope.

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