Didik vs. Goliath, a Story of Tiger Ecology, Conservation and Human Conflict


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October 22nd 2013
Published: November 15th 2013
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I'm going to tell you the most incredible story I've heard since arriving in Indonesia. To do that I first need to tell you the story of Mr. Didik Raharyono (Didi). Didi is one of those rare finds whose passion is contagious and whose knowledge seems endless. He's been searching for the Javan tiger for nearly 15 years but has yet to see one. In fact, the Indonesian government declared the Javan tiger extinct in 1996. So why even search you might ask? Early on in our conversations, Didi reminded me, "Poor people are crazy, rich people are eccentric."

The 1996 extinction status is awash in corporations lust for money and power. Unfortunately, the tiger's fate has also been bound with the shiny stuff. On Java, where you found tigers, mining companies often found gold. So with the right politicians in their back pocket, the mining industry would buy the tiger's extinction status and pave their golden roads into the formerly protected habitat of the Javan tiger.

To gather information on one of the most elusive animals on Earth, Didi had to gain the trust of local hunters on Java. As is quite common the globe over, hunters have wildlife information that would be hard to obtain from any other source. Obtaining this data would be made all the more difficult by the fact that the hunters believed he was a private investigator, therefore it took 2 years before he gained their trust!

At this point, Didi told me the differences between traditional and commercial tiger hunters. The commercial hunters are obviously in it for commercial gain and will steal cubs or poach adult tigers for black market trade. The traditional or ritual hunter only goes after aging tigers, never cubs. Hunters from East Java believe that they must sacrifice one tiger every year to keep Java safe from natural disasters like volcanoes and earthquakes. After the tiger is killed, blood is collected and kept in a vessel that is placed in a cave. Didi was told to stop his research by the hunters. Only after convincing them of the need to conserve more forest for the tigers did they begin to supply him with more information. This has included four pieces of different tiger skins collected since 2005, the latest being from April of 2013! DNA analysis is currently be conducted.

I met Mr. Didi while
Variation of Striping on Tigers in Indonesia Variation of Striping on Tigers in Indonesia Variation of Striping on Tigers in Indonesia

From left to right. Adult Javan, Adolescent Javan, Sumatran, Bali
conducting high conservation value assessments with an ecology team from Ekologika Consultants on Sumatra. On my 1st day in the field with them, we had walked a transect line in mature, secondary forest. It was nearly 6 pm when we reached the end of the trail, and we sat in the deepening dusk waiting to begin night surveys. Stars twinkled through the canopy and fireflies glided by. Didi suddenly motioned for us to listen as you could hear a growling sort of call in the distance. Soon you could hear a response from another direction and then another. Before we knew it, Didi estimated that there were 6-7 Sumatran tigers giving territory calls! A tiger biologist hearing his study subject for the 1st time in the wild. Driving back to camp that night we saw the small leopard cat, which was also a 1st for Didi and of course me!

Of course, a lot of tiger stories were told that evening and the subsequent days especially since Didi and the team herpatologist, Hastin, would smell tiger pheromone the next morning! So here is the story that left my head spinning.

In 2011, seven villagers close to the area we were working had stolen a tiger's cub. Not only had they stolen it, but they had eaten it! The tiger would take its revenge though. The 7 villagers would soon be killed by the tiger and each time it killed, it would eat a single body part. This included arms, legs, innards and the head from which the tiger consumed the brains. At this point, I figured that this must indeed be a "story." Then Mr. Wiwit, our rather squeamish guide, piped up and asked if I wanted to see the pictures! I was shocked and now tried to wrap my head around this rather unbelievable tale. As I sat there, our team leader, Mrs. Wening, related another story from a village nearby. Some of these villagers had also stolen a cub, but sold it rather than eating it. The village would be terrorized by a tiger every night for the next month. It was all almost too incredible to believe.

There's certainly colorful folklore that goes along with these incredible creatures, and where the facts end and the fiction begins is often difficult to discern. What is certain is that tigers the world over play an incredibly important role as top predators in ecosystems. If you want to learn more about or contribute to Mr. Didik Raharyono's research contact him at http://pedulikarnivorjawa.org/ or find him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/pages/Javan-Tiger-Center/102351629805321.


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The "problem" tiger was kept here before it was moved to another island.


15th November 2013

Javan Tigers
I always look forward to hear how you are doing, but this blog entry is absolutely FASINATING. I must read up on the Javan Tigers. I am so glad that you are able to extend the joys of my life through your and Ophelia's work and travels. I love you both very much!

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