Indonesia: Private PA center of controversial tiger rehabilitation program

BALIMBING, Indonesia — The two wild Sumatran tigers, held in large, adjoining cages here, had killed at least eight people between them.

They growled ferociously, lunged at a man outside, ran in circles inside the cages and slammed against the walls, their eyes radiating a fierceness absent in zoo tigers. But if all goes well, one of them eventually will be reintroduced into the wild.

In the only one of two such experiments in the world, tiger experts here have begun rehabilitating and releasing tigers that have attacked humans and livestock elsewhere on Indonesia’s island of Sumatra. As a growing human population and economic development keep squeezing tigers out of their remaining habitats, clashes are increasing with deadly frequency. Last year, tigers killed at least nine people in Sumatra, mostly illegal loggers pushing ever deeper into previously untouched forest.

In the past 20 months, conservationists have successfully returned four Sumatran tigers to the wild here, in what some experts describe as a promising strategy to help save the world’s population of wild tigers — now below 3,000, or less than 3 percent of their numbers a century ago. The Sumatran tiger, with fewer than 400 left, is considered one of the most critically endangered of the world’s six surviving tiger subspecies.

The tigers’ release has drawn criticism, not least from local villagers who complain that they have lost goats and chickens to the predators, and now fear venturing outside at night. Some conservation groups, including the World Wildlife Fund, have hesitated to get involved with the program, which is financed by Tomy Winata, an Indonesian tycoon who parlayed close ties to the military into building an empire in real estate, banking, mining and other industries.

Mr. Winata, 51, runs his “tiger rescue center” out of the Tambling Nature Wildlife Conservation, a 111,000-acre park that he acquired in the remote, southernmost tip of a peninsula sticking out of southwestern Sumatra.

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