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Nick sums up Sumatra trek

Tigers in Sumatra Nick Vlastuin and Jack Graham speak about their trip to Sumatra with the Club's conservation partner WWF-Australia.

Tigers, leeches and spicy food. Nick Vlastuin writes about his experience on a field trip to Sumatra with the Club’s conservation partner WWF-Australia.

I’ve been to Sumatra a few times on my way to the Mentawai islands to go surfing. But I never really thought about the fact that Sumatran Tigers lived there – let alone about all the problems they face in order to survive.

Sumatra is the largest island that is entirely in Indonesia, located on the equator, west of most of the other islands that make up Indonesia.  It’s known for its wildlife but also its mass production and exportation of palm oil, which leads to many of the habitat issues that tigers face.

There are as few as 400 tigers remaining in the wild in Sumatra, meaning they are critically endangered.

The tiger is such a prominent part of our football club, so when the opportunity came up to take part in the field trip, ‘Fridge’ (Jack Graham) and I jumped at it.

Dr Ashley Brooks, who leads WWF’s Tigers Alive Initiative, organised the trip, alongside two WWF-Indonesia staff members Febri and Sammy. Their knowledge about tigers and all the problems they face in Indonesia, especially in the Rimbang Baling Reserve, is incredible.

We flew into Pekanbaru, in eastern Sumatra, via Jakarta. In the following five days, we learnt all about snares, camera traps, palm oil plantations, the local culture and Sumatra’s booming rubber industry, which all have major impacts on the tigers’ survival rate.

We met government officials, Tiger Patrol Units (TPU), villagers, kicked the footy with school kids, planted trees, trekked through the jungle and even got bogged in a river for a few hours on our way to a ranger station.

There are four TPU’s based at Camp Tapi, a ranger station, where we spent two interesting nights sleeping with minimal comforts and also millions of unknown bugs, all part of the experience. The TPU trek through the jungle for 14 days at a time, primarily to identify and remove snares, and also to set up camera traps to keep data on tigers in the area, all while living off the land as the local pub or cafe is a couple of days trek away.

Snares are what poachers use to trap tigers, made out of a car brake cable and a bent over tree, they can lift a 150kg tiger off the ground and hang it by its paw until the poachers return to kill and sell their prize.

They use camera traps to monitor tiger numbers. They are small devices they attach to trees to capture and track movements. Unfortunately, poachers often destroy them. 

We joined the TPU for a trek through dense jungle. After a couple of hours, we a few kilometres from the camp, exhausted and worrying about the amount of mosquito and leech bites we had received. I couldn't imagine what the TPU go through in 14 days, given days four and five are when the risk of snare and tiger encounters are highest.  

The question we are first asked about the trip is if we saw any tigers. We didn’t – it’s very rare to see a tiger in the wild in Sumatra, unlike India or Russia. However we did see two tiger foetuses. Their mother was killed in a snare just one week before she was due to give birth.

We were told shown a video of a tiger being rescued from under a villager’s house. It had become trapped under the floor after fleeing from a flood. They had to put it to sleep, climb into the small space and stretcher it out, knowing they had a limited amount of time before it woke up and do what wild tigers do.

The real unforeseen challenge for us came with the food. We don’t handle spicy food well in Melbourne. Being in the middle of the jungle, nothing can go to waste, so ridiculous amounts of chili was used to dull the actual taste of whatever we were eating. So we were told it was chicken and fish, with a side of rice and a couple handfuls of chilli for breakfast lunch and dinner.

It was an incredible experience and I hope that it allows ‘Fridge’ and I to educate our members and supporters about tiger conservation, and all the impressive work the WWF team are doing to help save our mascot.

What did I learn? Heaps - and also that we can do more - and we need to. Australia makes almost no contribution to tiger conservation in Sumatra, or globally. I encourage you to adopt a tiger this Christmas. If you can’t think of a gift to buy, make a contribution to WWF-Australia and make a real difference to the wild tigers' chance of survival. 

Tigers are under threat from poachers – with an average of two tigers killed every week to fuel the illegal wildlife trade. Time is running out for these majestic big cats. They urgently need your help.

Adopt a tiger with WWF-Australia today.