The capture site

Taina Strike

Up early and time to head to the capture site…the excitement is palpable and everyone is in good spirits. Everything from darting equipment to food for our team of 15 is crammed into the little ZSL office in Palembang and must be transferred to two 4x4 vehicles. We are finally loaded up and weighed down heavily… down to the last pair of shoes!

Loading up…need to take everything along with us

We start our 5 hour trip to the capture site. Five hours of pot-holed metal road lined solidly on both sides with oil palm, rubber trees or cleared forest. Quite distressing not to see a single ancient tree like so many I had seen in the Amazon, but here in Sumatra it’s just row upon row of sterile monoculture… so much biodiversity lost, it’s tragic, but of course it’s also revenue that this large country desperately needs. Hitting that middle ground is so important, finding some sort of balance… Harimau Kita – the Indonesian Tiger Forum together with many NGO’s including ZSL are involved in community, school and university outreach programmes to promote tiger awareness and the need for conservation of their habitat. Grassroots social outreaches are so essential for any conservation programme to succeed and the rangers who patrol the preservation areas are heavily involved in the local communities.

Harimau Kita- Indonesia Tiger Forum newsletter showing community involvement in schools and universities

All along the road we see men on bikes and scooters transporting big square glutinous white lumps – raw rubber which needs to be collected from the tree up to 2x daily, depending on the intensity of cultivation. Dudy tells me it smells delicious – gullibly I say “really?” And they burst out laughing… the smell is horrendous… like something dead, as I later find out…

Rubber collection from the tree

Eventually we turn off the bad metal road and onto a worse dirt road, rattling our teeth for an hour until we turn onto a single track…our trucks nosing through thick ferns and skidding through deep mud. I am hopeful that we are inching into proper forest…but the rubber trees and oil palms continue incessantly even once we cross into the preservation area which is supposed to be secondary logged forest, about 30 years old… Finally we stop at a small wooden shack perched among rubber trees and oil palm. It’s called a “pondok” and is hastily built from planks by people who move into these areas, usually illegally, to scratch out a living, or to work in surrounding plantations.  It has a beaten earth floor, a lean-to with a hole in the roof to let cooking fire smoke escape and a ladder leading to an upper floor where we’ll sleep. The big unpack begins and Yanti and I soon make ourselves at home on our tree house “balcony” – just the cocktails missing darling!

Cocktails on the tree house deck

The rest of the BKSDA and ZSl team join us and within minutes a large living tent area is erected with trenches dug all around it – of vital importance as we later find out!

Putting up the living tent

We discover our “mandi”- washroom - little stream down in the valley with a hole in the ground that fills with clear water and a bucket on a string with which to draw water and wash with. Our loo is a hole in the ground under an oil palm. Perfect! And no mobile reception – a rarity in this day - even more perfect! My ears adjust to the wonderful sounds around me - a million insects, frogs, geckos and other little creatures… not to mention the whine of chain saws… as the rangers call their snoring colleagues! This is my favourite – dusk and dawn, whether in the African bush or equatorial jungle, it’s the liveliest times of day. Equatorial dusk is a brief encounter and after the quickest pink sunset through the palm leaves, night falls abruptly and heavily at 6pm, dawn is much the same in reverse with no lingering light just sudden hot full sun.

Brief sunset through the palms

A crescent moon “pulan” grins through the high clouds and a few stars peer out. I think my favourite Bahasa word must be “matahari” –sun, which literally translates as “eyes of the day”. We sit chatting, learning new words our legs dangling attractively to the mozzies. I spot a beautiful large butterfly asleep on a nearby banana leaf “kupukupu tidur” I venture – butterfly asleep… and that’s exactly what I’m going to do! A massive thunderstorm wakes us, the lightening flashing all around and large leaks springing thru the flimsy roof. It really buckets down jungle style. The trenches round the tent rapidly fill but hold their own, and I think those sleeping in the tent have a drier night than we do… As the day breaks I hear wonderful soulful songs echoing around us… they are the calls and replies of the Owa – Sumatran Gibbon (Hylobates agilis) who still manage to survive in this disturbed landscape. What a treat to be woken by such magical songs… I grin to myself – I am so happy to be here! My nostrils now tune in to another treat in store for us -  the delicious smells of home cooking – no cooking rota for us! A lovey local lady is our cook and ensures we are more than well fed with 3 full delicious meals a day, all liberally spiced with her home grown chillis, lemon grass and ginger - and banana fritters or other wonderful cooked snacks are served in between lest we feel peckish! And woe betide the one who doesn’t eat… impossible under Ibu’s watchful eye!

Spicy breki! Yum!

We are all keen to get going to the actual capture site about 3km away to set the cage trap with the BKSDA rangers and everything is loaded into 2 vehicles. I hope that once we get deeper into the preservation area there will be more real forest even if it is secondary regrowth. The ground is soaked and the mud is really sticky as we push and skid and bump our way through heavy undergrowth in old plantations, our wheels spinning and engine screaming as ZSL’s Ifran skilfully manoeuvres our 4x4… until a point where we have to recognise we are stuck… well and truly!

Stuck!

Further travel will be on foot… luckily the lead BKSDA vehicle which has higher clearance  manages to inch forward slowly as it is carrying the heavy cage trap! I feel myself grow both taller and heavier as we trudge along… I look down to see a 6 inch wedge of thick red mud adhered to my walking shoes! A myriad huge colourful butterflies accompany us and the owa begins singing around us, always invisible but tantalisingly close.

6 inch wedges of mud!

We finally stop at the lead vehicle – this is the site… There are no big trees even the secondary regrowth has been logged out illegally from the area on the edge of the preservation region… Pak Edi, our excellent BKSDA team leader sees my disappointment and tells me that deep in the heart of this preservation area there is still ancient forest with trees that take 4 men to encircle their trunks…he shows me a photo of himself standing by one such ancient giant. Its take 2 days of trekking to get there which is too difficult for loggers to get to but ideal for tigers… emphasising the reason why it is so essential to get these marginal corridor areas protected as they allow the tigers that have been caught on ZSL’s camera traps to obviously move between areas that can still offer them support and protection. Their plight seems more and more critical as I survey the destroyed habitat that they are increasingly facing. The importance of this project is obvious. I just hope we succeed in catching a tiger.

Rest of the way on foot!

Unloading at capture site – no tall trees and only low regrowth, illegal logging has removed even the secondary trees

But you can’t catch a tiger without a trap so we scout the area best suited to place it. An area where 3 tracks intersect and along which tiger tracks have been found and camera trap photos taken is the ideal location. We begin the lengthy task of mounting, testing, and securing the trap. We also need to set up trap transmitters that give off a constant signal which can be monitored from camp. They are attached preferably from a high vantage for good transmission (typically a tree), to the open trap door by a string. When the tiger enters and triggers the trap the door to shut, the string pulls a magnetic pin out of the transmitter and this changes the pitch of the signal indicating the trap has been triggered to close… what we won’t know from the camp is whether we have a tiger… it could also be a wild pig, a monkey or a sunbear! We need to be prepared for any of them! Last of all we camouflage the trap, but it’s getting late… it’s after 3pm and the camera traps tell us tigers start coming this way from about 5pm… Just enough time for a quick team pic – say “Harimau”!

Trap site on intersecting tracks

Mounting the trap

John being a ladder for Roin while he positions trap transmitter which allow us to monitor the trap remotely

Everything needs to be camouflaged – including string attached to the transmitter so that it doesn’t shine – a handy mud wallow helps to dye the string and cover the trap in earth!

Trap camouflaged, set and ready…

Team pic - say tigerrrrrrrr!

And now we wait… fingers crossed!

Everything needs to be camouflaged – including string attached to the transmitter so that it doesn’t shine – a handy mud wallow helps to dye the string and cover the trap in earth! We trudge back out of the trap site after clearing all signs of human presence and hoping for rain to further reduce our scent. Everyone is very excited and bets are on – 5 Bintangs (the local beer) if it happens in the next 48 hours… John looks sceptical…! On the long roller coaster ride back to camp I am convinced more than once that the bucking bronco effect in the open truck we are clinging to would eject me clean into the shrubbery at the feet of our tiger… Well, that would be one way of catching a glimpse of it! Once we get back into the truck cabin I am in awe of Yanti who quickly falls asleep as if lulled by the leaps, bounds, wheels spins and bogging in. She wakes as we get to base camp and smiles when I say how amazed I was she could sleep – she says some of her trips to reach conflict elephants take 2 days in logging trucks where they have to be harnessed in to the truck so bad is the “road” so this was literally just a comfy drive for her, while my lower back still aches from meeting the tailgate of our truck with an almighty thump after a vertical take-off  - disaster only averted by a ranger snatching me out of the air! Back at camp we immediately check the transmitter signal. Alas, we can’t get the receiver aerial high enough to pick up the signal. That’s a problem, and we can’t head back now… An early trap check by motorbike is planned and we will have to find a pole of sorts to get the receiver aerial as high as possible. The song of the owa greets us again and another day begins… we eagerly await the return of the rangers on their motorbikes…what news will it be? Tension mounts and eventually we hear the distant grumble of the motorbikes. They turn in to the camp – heads pop out of hut and tent… rangers shake their heads… and so the wait begins… The receiver aerial is cunningly strapped to a bamboo pole and we pick up the regular slow beep-beep-beep meaning the trap is open and untriggered. Now we can monitor hourly and the rangers still go out daily on motorbikes to check in case a string has broken or a storm has disturbed the camouflage.

Receiver aerial fixed to bamboo pole

The burnt out stumps of ancient trees to make way for new oil palm

Our days are spent planning the collaring procedure, packing and re-packing all the equipment needed, discussing our anaesthetic protocols and streamlining our release procedure by pre-constructing a frame to hold a pulley. I enjoy bird- and butterfly watching on my daily hikes around camp but can’t get over feeling shocked at how damaged the environment is, seeing the burnt out stumps of ancient trees where new palm oil or rubber trees grow… We also exchange many a story, learn new words in English and Bahasa and make new friends. My luxury of the day is my cup of fresh brewed coffee…black and strong aaaah… bliss! I pass some around… aaaaggggghhhh “pahit” – bitter and many faces pulled – we all laugh. “tesco” deliveries come round daily – a motorbike with 2 huge side baskets laden with local produce – local vegies, fruit, fish and chicken so fresh they’re still clucking…!

Yanti practises with a blow pipe…

Roin gets collared by Dudy!

Your friendly delivery man!

The days tick by – literally by the regular beeps of the receiver… every time I go to check I hope and wish and my heart races a little – this could be the one… this might be the transmission we’re hoping for… will I get that fast bip-bip-bip sound that tells us we’ve caught something? Alas no… next time? “Munkin” – maybe… Laura Darcy, ZSL’s dynamic country co-ordinator arrives for a short visit between two high powered conservation meetings, and goes out on patrol with the BKSDA rangers to a corridor area. They return disheartened to find new areas have been slashed and burned and a camera trap has had its SD card stolen, probably to prevent illegal activity and the people involved in it being identified. This is not good news for the tigers and our trapping project – the tigers may well be north of the new area that has been burned and will not be able to come down our way. There is nothing we can do except wait and check more camera traps. Every day we hope but no tiger tracks are seen and no evidence of tigers passing is found on the camera traps either. We discuss at length what other reasons there could be for not catching these tigers... the cage trap method is used very successfully by BKSDA for trapping conflict tigers, hence it being their method of choice for this project too. However, John Lewis of Wildlife Vets International, who has the most experience trapping wild tigers, feels that conflict tigers are used to human presence, scent and constructions-they even venture into homes-whereas these wild tigers are not habituated to humans and may well give the cage trap a wide berth. We will have to consider different methods with BKSDA for future wild tiger monitoring, which is going to be more and more essential. Last sunrise and owa songs… and now it’s time for me to go… the team will stay on another week, I really hope that they get a tiger – they promise to text me the minute they get a positive trap signal!

Last sunrise…

I may not have collared a tiger but I have learned and exchanged so much with a wonderful team of people. I feel we’ve helped build capacity with this BKSDA and ZSL team so that future projects can be envisaged. I’ve also seen how desperate the plight for these magnificent creatures is. Even with such dedicated people working so hard, it is difficult to see how a future will be ensured, and increasingly important to ensure an ex situ healthy zoo population can be maintained globally as a fall back plan if conservation in the field were to fail. But I hope with all my heart and soul that this will not be a reality we will have to face… that is just too sad to contemplate… the Sumatran tiger belongs here… I am humbled by so many of the people on our team, working in this field against great odds and with enormous self-sacrifice – Pak Gatot who was an elephant keeper and worked with conflict wild elephants for many years is now in the local BKSDA (Natural Resources Conservation Office) protecting preservation areas. He and his teams patrol the areas 5x a month for several days at a time, he spends 75% of his time in the field, away from his family because he passionate about his work. The youngest member was an illegal logger but has now joined ZSL to do conservation work. Yanti the diminutive BKSDA vet and one of only a handful of wildlife vets is constantly risking her life (and limbs!) catching conflict elephants and tigers and standing up to difficult politics which threaten ‘her’ wildlife. If there ever was proof that dynamite comes in very small packages, then it is her! I mention the expression and she laughs – she’s heard it before, from other “bule” (western) vets who’ve worked with her! So it’s time for final goodbyes and thank you’s  – in my faulty Bahasa with much encouragement from all, and final team photos…

The Team

It has been a life changing experience and a direction I’ve always wanted my veterinary career to move towards. I’m so grateful to ZSL for having given me this opportunity and to my wonderful colleagues for their enthusiastic support and help while I was away. I would like to be involved in many more field projects and I hope that in a tiny way, whether in the zoo or in the field I can make a difference for one of the world’s most charismatic predators.

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