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Sumatra’s ‘tiger descendants’ cling to their customs as coal mines encroach

A Sumatran tiger at the Chester zoo in the U.S. Photo courtesy of Steve Wilson/Flickr Creative Commons.

  • Sekalak village in southern Sumatra lies in one of the last remaining strongholds of the Sumatran tiger, a critically endangered species that the locals revere as both an ancestral spirit and the guardian of the forest.
  • This respect for the tiger has sustained a generations-long pledge to protect the local environment, including the wildlife and water resources.
  • However, the presence of a coal-mining operation in the area poses a threat to both the tigers and the villagers’ way of life: the mining road gives poachers greater access to once-secluded tiger habitat, and the mining waste is polluting the river on which the villagers depend.

SEKALAK, Indonesia — The inhabitants of Sekalak village, in this forested region of southern Sumatra, have for generations passed down the legend of Puyang Baju Lantung, a man who was said to have transformed into a tiger to serve as the community’s guardian.

The myth goes that Puyang, who lost a toe on his left foot while setting a fish trap known as a kalak (from which the village gets its name), had set himself the Sisyphean task of filling a pitcher with the eyes of a type of white fish that lived upriver. But try as he might, the eyes in the bottom of the pitcher would rot by the time he came close to filling it up, and he had to start all over again, resting only occasionally in a cave. When, years later, his son set out to seek the father he had never known, he found instead a tiger — one that was missing a toe from its left hind paw.

“Puyang transformed into a tiger to protect the river and its fish,” says Matsun, a village elder who, like many Indonesians, goes by one name.

The people of Sekalak village in southern Sumatra believe that this cave is the resting place of mythical ancestor Puyang Baju Lantung, who was said to have transformed into a Sumatran tiger. The site today is littered with mining waste from a nearby coal pit. Photo by Dedek Hendry/Mongabay-Indonesia.

To this day, the villagers revere the Sumatran tigers (Panthera tigris sumatrae) that prowl the forest. Far from being seen as a threat, even when they encroach onto farmland or enter the village itself, the animals are a constant reminder for the people of Sekalak to protect the environment and the natural resources on which they depend.

“We don’t get scared,” village chief Sudarmono says of the relationship with the tigers. “They don’t come to attack, but to check on their [human] descendants.”

He says there have never been any reported tiger attacks or other conflicts between the villagers of Sekalak and the big cats, which usually show up before the harvest season, around the beginning of the year.

Mining site

Sekalak lies within the Bukit Balai Rejang Selatan region of Bengkulu province, one of six areas identified by wildlife NGOs as a tiger conservation landscape — a region that meets a minimum habitat size, where tigers have been confirmed to occur in the past 10 years and are not locally extinct.

The problem, though, for both the tigers and the Sekalak villagers, is that Bukit Balai Rejang Selatan has been designated by local authorities a limited production forest, which means it is open to commercial exploitation. And that’s exactly what has happened: Since 2009, a company called PT Bara Indah Lestari (BIL) has operated a 10-square-kilometer (3.9-square-mile) concession for coal mines near Sekalak.

Last October, three Sumatran tigers were seen at one of the company’s mining sites.

Erni Suyanti Musabine, a wildlife expert with the Sumatran Tiger Conservation Forum, says mining is one of the top threats to the population of the Sumatran tiger, which is listed as “Critically Endangered,” or a step away from extinction, by the IUCN. There are an estimated 30 tigers in Bukit Balai Rejang Selatan, which now face a heightened risk of being hunted, thanks to the mining road that potentially allows poachers access deep into once-secluded tiger habitat, Musabine says.

This photo shows the concession area of coal miner PT Bara Indah Lestari (BIL) which operates near Sekalak village, along a number of rivers, and in a landscape known to hold a strong population of the Sumatran tigers. Source: Environmental impact assessment document (AMDAL) of PT Bara Indah Lestari.

The mining company has also been criticized for allegedly dumping waste from its six coal mines into the river that the village depends on. (The company was not reachable through any of its listed phone numbers or email addresses.)

“The river is damaged because of the coal mine, and the fish stock is being depleted,” says Safri, a Sekalak elder. “The cave where Puyang would rest is now littered with chunks of coal, while the river is muddy from soil and coal sediment.”

An independent investigation of the river by the provincial chapter of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), an NGO, confirmed the villagers’ fears about the pollution stemming from the mining operations.

“Our report shows that PT Bara Indah Lestari has most likely abandoned its responsibilities [to mitigate pollution] as laid out in the company’s environmental impact assessments,” says Dede Frastien, Walhi’s campaign manager for the extractives industry.

“The Sekalak villagers’ complaint about declining fish stocks is evidence of the river’s deteriorating water quality,” he adds.

Dede says his office will submit its findings to the law enforcement unit at the Ministry of Environment and Forestry.

“Walhi will also encourage the people of Sekalak to apply for state recognition of their local customs for protecting the river and the Sumatran tiger,” he says, citing a 2017 regulation from the environment ministry that formally acknowledges and protects sustainable practices by local and indigenous communities in the management of natural resources and the environment.

A key river in Sekalak village has been polluted by chunks of coal and soil sediment reportedly coming from mining company PT Bara Indah Lestari, which operates nearby. Photo by Dedek Hendry/Mongabay-Indonesia.

Authorities in Bengkulu have promised to look into the village’s complaint against the coal company.

“We need the village to submit a written report to us so we can check and coordinate with the provincial department of environment and forestry for a follow-up,” says Ahyan Endu, head of the Bengkulu energy office, which oversees the local mining sector.

Sudarmono, the village chief, sees a dark allegory in the myth of Puyang Baju Lantung, the proto-villager who, destined to spend eternity on the river, had become the guardian of its white fish and all that they stood for.

“If [the pollution] continues, the river will get shallower,” Sudarmono warns. “Then the white fish will disappear.”

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Indonesia team and was first published here on our Indonesian site on Jan. 27, 2018.

Banner image: A Sumatran tiger at the Chester zoo in the U.S. Photo courtesy of Steve Wilson/Flickr Creative Commons.

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