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Subspecies Might Have Escaped Extinction

Indonesia once had three subspecies of tigers roaming on three different islands–Bali, Java and Sumatra. Today, the island nation is dangerously close to having none.

Today, there are only 200-300 tigers left on Sumatra, where its habitat has been decimated for timber and agriculture. Poaching also is contributing to their demise. The Sumatran tiger is listed as critically endangered.

Bali’s tigers were the smallest of all tiger subspecies. They had a distinctive dark orange coat with fewer stripes than other tigers. The last confirmed sighting of a Bali tiger was in 1937. The last confirmed sighting of a Javan tiger was in 1976. Given the extreme human population growth on each island and no sightings, scientists from IUCN declared both subspecies extinct more than a decade ago. However, a conservationist and her colleagues on Java reported a sighting in 2019 that has withstood scientific scrutiny so far.

The sighting took place on the western part of Java–the most remote part of the island and home to Ujung Kulon National Park. The remote area is home to rhinos, leopards and other endangered species. It’s rugged and mostly untouched by humans. 

A strand of hair recovered from that sighting is a close genetic match to hair from a Javan tiger pelt at a museum in Bogor. The scientists also recorded footprints and claw marks that resembled those of a tiger.

“We have determined that the Javan tiger still exists in the wild,” says Wirdateti, a government researcher and lead author of the study. “For this reason, follow-up field studies are needed, such as observations through camera traps, looking for droppings or footprints and scratches.”

Wirdateti and colleagues presented their findings in a study published March 21 in the journal Oryx. Their study suggests that the Javan tiger may not be extinct after all.

Many sightings of the Javan tiger have been reported over the past few decades, but research expeditions have not confirmed any of them. Indonesia was quick to debunk a possible tiger sighting in Ujung Kulon in 2017. Park rangers took blurry photos and video footage of a large cat feeding on a carcass. Despite the orange color and the appearance of stripes, officials unequivocally declared the animal a leopard.

The Javan tiger was endemic to Java and was widespread in lowland forests, thickets and community gardens in the 18th and 19th centuries. However, it was hunted as a pest, and its habitat converted for agricultural use and infrastructure.

Though some welcome the news of tigers on Java–one of the most densely populated islands in the world–developers and others will not. If not extinct, the Javan tiger is critically endangered. It will require public support and the political will to save this important subspecies. Conservationists around the world are asking Indonesia’s environment ministry to issue a policy and take the steps necessary to find and conserve the Javan tiger. Unfortunately, Indonesia’s government has supported deforestation and land conversion for industry. Biodiversity, including elephants, orangutans and tigers have been under assault for decades. Hopefully, Indonesia’s new president will turn a new leaf.

Indonesia is the fourth-largest nation in the world with more than 267 million people. The country has more than 17,500 islands, including Bali, Borneo, Java, Lombok, Sumatra and Sulawesi.

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Author: Gary Chandler