In the Claws of Disaster

By Riedo Panaligan

Aceh Tenggara, Indonesia – “It has never happened before,” said Saman Sitorus when asked if he can recall a similar incident in his lifetime of Sumatran tigers attacking defenseless villagers.

Saman is the geucik (head) of the upland village Tumban Tua which is the site of the latest tiger attack, news that sent shock and terror to upland villages in the district of Aceh Tenggara, province of Nanggroe Aceh Darusalam (NAD).

On the morning of May 11, 2005, a Sumatran tiger attacked Lacuis, 57, while he is tending his farm. His body was found at night by villagers who were alarmed when Lacuis failed to return before sunset as he used to. The incident in Tumban Tua is the fourth recorded occurrence of such attacks in Aceh Tenggara, all of which happened this year alone.

Male Sumatran tigers average 8 feet in length and weigh 265 pounds while female species average 7 feet in length and weigh about 200 pounds. A Sumatran tiger is smaller in size compared to other tiger subspecies but its physical size enables it to swim faster and move quickly inside the forest.

Sumatran tigers can only be found on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia and are classified as endangered species. It is believed that no more than 500 of these tigers live in the wild. A big fraction of them live in Gunung Leuser National Park and in the Leuser Ecosystem.

“We failed to protect the forest, and now the tigers are angry,” said Saman. He believes that the tigers are attacking the villages as punishment, for their failure to fulfill their responsibilities as protectors of the forests.

Because of the attacks, economic activity in Tumban Tua and nearby villages sharply declined stopped because majority of the villagers, like Saman, are upland farmers with farms adjacent to the forest. “We are terrified and no one dares to go near the woods,” said Saman.

There are 104 upland villages located in the buffer zone of Gunung Leuser National Park and Leuser Ecosystem.

“It only means one thing,” said Zulfikar Arma of the local research group Remeja Melati Tunas Marhamah (RMTM). “The Sumatran tigers are being forced out in the open because their habitat has already been destroyed.”

According to Zulfikar, the rampant logging inside the protected area led to the destruction of the habitats of many wildlife including the endemic Sumatran tigers, elephants and rhinoceros, and the famed orang-gutans.

Famous watersheds like the Ketambe and Uring Sigugur, once favorite watering holes of elephants and other wildlife, have long since received such magnificent visitors.

“Rivers are also drying up, turning many agricultural lands into vast cogon grasslands,” said Zulfikar.

The district of Aceh Tenggara has been the site of calamities such as soil erosions, floods and drought that occur yearly.

Yet the disaster agency Palang Merah Indonesia in the district seems at a loss why calamities keep on repeating in Aceh Tenggara, making it a dangerous place to live in.

“I don’t know the answer,” said the agency head Indra Utama.

Aceh Tenggara regent Armen Desky is not worried about the state of his constituents.

Armen acknowledges that floods and erosions are annual calamities in his district but are attributed to the rainy season. The latest flashflood that happened on April 27, 2005 has been attributed by the regent to the constant earthquakes in Aceh that followed the strong one which triggered the tsunami in December 2004.

“There have been no major damages in the past years, only this year,” he said.

No disaster prevention or management programs are being implemented by the civil government Aceh Tenggara even in the light of the frequency of such calamities.

“We just respond during disasters,” said Indra. According to Armen, he is currently working with different conservation groups to relocate upland communities living in the buffer zone of Leuser Ecosystem and Leuser Natural Park. “It’s very difficult because many of them have farms inside the Leuser,” he said.

“We do not want logging in our forests, but we cannot do anything to stop it” said Saman.

Logging inside the protected area of Aceh Tenggara is believed to be facilitated by district officials with the consent of the local police and the Indonesian military there.

“Logging inside the protected area should be stopped,” said Zulfikar.

Until that time, the forests that nurtured generations of upland farmers, including the forefathers of Saman, will never be safe again.

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(The story was published in Balikas Online, a weekly paper in Batangas, Philippines, and in the Jakarta Post).

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