Crouching Tiger, Hidden Data

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  • TEMPO.CO, Jakarta - THE photograph taken in Ujung Kulon, Banten, of a giant cat believed to be a Javan tiger is both exhilarating and depressing. Now there is hope that this rare species is not extinct, as was declared by the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) in 1994. But it is also depressing as the photo, taken by a national park ranger, was released before there was any scientific proof that this feline actually is a Panthera tigris sondaica.

    Releasing the photo of the animal complete with details of where it was found actually endangers the carnivore, although it is only 'suspected' to be a rare species. Hunters joyfully welcomed the report. Publishing the photo before any scientific examination has been done also shows that the government has no standard procedures in events like these. The Ministry of the Environment and Forestry ought to have brought in LIPI, or another large mammal research institution, to discuss the discovery before publishing the photo.

    Confirmation of whether the photo really is of a Javan tiger has implications for the treatment of the animal. If this tiger actually still exists in the wild, the government must immediately dispatch multiple teams to scrutinize its habitat, and also 'sterilize' the national park to ensure the tiger can continue to live in its current environment. The widespread release of the photo tainted this valuable discovery.

    Releasing it without any accompanying scientific clarification is just the same as setting an animal-free without providing it any protection. The Ujung Kulon National Park is open for tourists, and its tropical forest, located on the western tip of the island of Java, is part of the main island and can be entered from the sea from any of its many beaches. Park rangers cannot stop people with bad intentions from entering the forest to prove the authenticity of the photo.

    In Indonesia, trade in endangered animals is still widespread. Its customers come from the middle and upper classes, who are proud to own and exhibit stuffed endangered animals. Sadly, these collectors often include public officials or law enforcers, who really should have a better understanding of preserving our environment and the key role endangered animals play in the world's ecology.

    Even more ironic is the official statement from LIPI scientists who analyzed the image of the 'tiger' from the pictures shown in the media. This gives the impression that government institutions do not collaborate with those carrying out research. LIPI's official statement of the photo-saying that it was most likely a leopard-sounded more like a tactic to divert the attention of potential poachers from the endangered animal. 

    Meanwhile, LIPI's conclusion is not supported by any valid data. LIPI only compared the morphology of the large cat in the photo with the other creatures in its surrounding area. It has no real data on the corporeal measurements of the Javan tiger. Indonesia, which is the sole country with this specific species habitats, should have this information at hand.

    Accordingly, LIPI's statement carries with it the same uncertainties as the conviction of park rangers that this is a Javan tiger. It is now even more ironic that Indonesia, with tropical forests that are home to a range of endangered animals, still has little data on the wealth of its wildlife. The discovery of this large cat must spur scientific institutions to carry out serious research and expand their database.

    Read the full story in this week’s edition of Tempo English Magazine