To protect Sumatran tigers, we mapped villages in Indonesia with high-risk human-tiger conflicts

The Sumatran tiger is the only surviving member of the Sunda Islands group of tigers. Grey82/Shutterstock

To protect Sumatran tigers, we mapped villages in Indonesia with high-risk human-tiger conflicts

Deforestation and illegal hunting increasingly threaten the survival of Sumatran tigers. Humans are the biggest threat to these big cats.

There are only around 400 to 500 Sumatran tigers today, according to The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). These tigers are critically endangered due to habitat loss, conflicts with humans, and illegal hunting.

In the past, Sumatran tigers (Panthera tigris sondaica) lived in the forests of the islands of Sumatra, Java and Bali, in Indonesia. Now they exist only in Sumatra. They often come into conflict with local communities due to their shrinking habitat. At the same time, people often hunt the tigers to sell their skins, bones and teeth on the black market.

I am part of an interdisciplinary team that carried out research to learn how we can minimise conflicts between humans and tiger. We mapped villages in Jambi, Sumatra, that have high-risk human-tiger encounters. We also identified areas where the residents have low tolerance of wild animals.

These villages should be prioritised for interventions using cultural and religious approaches to reduce human-tiger conflicts.


Indonesia has outlawed the killing of tigers, but this does not deter people from hunting them. When villagers feel threatened by tigers destroying crops and livestock, they don’t hesitate to kill them.

Research by Chris R. Shepherd from Monitor Conservation Research Society (Monitor) reveals that commercial reasons or market demands have been driving tiger hunting. In other words, it’s not uncommon that the intention to kill a tiger is driven by money.

On the other hand, scientists, including Shonil A. Bhagwat of Open University, have shown that culture and religion can be used to support wildlife conservation and end tiger hunting.

Intervention in human-tiger conflicts

Between 2014 and 2017, we collected data from 2,386 participants in 72 villages in Kerinci Seblat National Park in Jambi, Sumatra. We then combined spacial analysis of risks of tiger encounters with humans with information about tolerance to uncover why conflicts between tigers and humans occur.

We used ensemble models and identified many potential villages near forest or rivers that were at high risk of tiger attack. We combined the tolerance scores with the information on risk from each measure to produce the maps and identify 7-9 villages at high risk and with low tolerance of tigers.

It is very important to identify low-tolerance villages with high risk of tiger encounters to determine where intervention should be prioritised.

According to our model, if conservationists carry out interventions in those villages, this can prevent 54% of attacks on tigers. This could prevent 15 wild tigers from being killed. That’s 10% of the tiger population in Kerinci Seblat. The total population of tigers as counted previously in this area was between 122 and 179 individuals.

Our research, recently published in Nature Communication, used a multidisciplinary approach involving 12 spacial ecology and social science experts from the UK and Indonesia.

The research was a collaboration between non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and universities. We used 13 years of field notes on human-tiger encounters and geographical profiles. This method is used around the world to catch repeated attacks against wild animals.

Tolerance between living beings

In our research, we try to understand whether human tolerance of wild animals is “key” to control conflicts with dangerous wild animals like tigers.

We try to find factors that support behaviours that keep tiger hunting in check, especially for those who live side by side with tigers. We also look for the strongest predictor of their intention to hunt tigers.

In our investigation of human motivations to hunt or protect tigers, we found that awareness about conservation alone has yet to restrain people from hunting. We also discovered in Aceh — where attitude, norms and behaviours are influenced by beliefs, stemming from religious edicts and religious leaders — that these beliefs can determine people’s willingness to participate in conservation efforts.

The local people usually hunt tigers when the animals attack their livestock and people. Nevertheless, we did find people who want to protect tigers. This indicates there are pro-conservation attitudes among these communities.

The level of tolerance for wild animals is influenced by people’s attitudes, emotions, norms and spiritual beliefs. Research by Freya St John and others described how attitude and spirituality based on customary norms determine the rate of tolerance. For example, anthropologist Jet Bakels found that Minangkabau and Kerinci people believe the souls of their ancestors are in tigers and can understand humans. They believe tigers only attack people for violating customary law.

We detected that people’s tolerance for tigers decreases when the animals threaten their lives. So, although they have norms and beliefs that can increase their tolerance, if they’ve had a bad experience with tigers, their tolerance diminishes.

We used psychology models to understand how people make assessments, what drives them to act, and whether belief and norms can influence support for policy and intervention.

We found that customary norms can be used to support behavioural changes as preventive measures.

We also found that it’s important to engage people’s emotions. One way is to invite figures that the community looks up to, such as religious and society leaders, to be involved in conservation efforts. Social pressure where community members encourage positive activities for conservation can bring about behaviour change.

Interdisplinary approach is very important

The interdisciplinary approach in our research is very important. We combine social and ecological data to find the best approach to reduce conflict between humans and wild animals.

Tigers are critically endangered, but they also threaten human populations when their habitat shrinks. Sumatra is an example where tigers can live alongside humans.

Millions of dollars have been spent on conservation every year to reduce risks of conflict between humans and tigers, which includes compensating farmers for livestock losses. This study gives science-based recommendations on where exactly the investment in conservation should go.

Improving the economy for local people can prevent tiger killing in areas with high conflict between humans and tigers. At the same time, conservationists can try to promote pro-conservation norms and reinforce local wisdom.

This article was originally published in Indonesian