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Indonesia’s Teater Potlot takes on the plight of the Sumatran tiger

Teater Potlot actors perform a scene from Puyang in Palembang, South Sumatra. Image by Yudhi Semai/Teater Potlot.

  • A seventh-century Srivijaya king, Srijayanasa, believed progress should bring merit to man and creature alike.
  • “Puyang,” a play by a South Sumatra theater group, explores the undoing of this pact through the eyes of a mythical tiger.
  • Today, there are fewer than 400 Sumatran tigers believed to be living in the wild, as plantation and mining interests raze their forest homes.

PALEMBANG, Indonesia — For those worried about the plight of the Sumatran tiger, of which only a few hundred remain, concern typically flows from a sense that all life is worth saving.

For Teater Potlot, a theater group based in South Sumatra, Indonesia, the concern goes back further. Centuries, in fact.

“The Srivijaya kingdom managed nature for the common good,” says Teater Potlot founder Conie Sema, referring to the Hindu-Buddhist empire that once held sway over much of the Indonesian archipelago. “They sought for all living beings to live in moral harmony.”

“Puyang,” the group’s new play, explores the erosion of this ideal. First performed at the South Sumatra Landscape Festival this summer, the play charts the story through the eyes of Puyang, a mythical Sumatran tiger who personifies the big cat’s real-world decline.

In South Sumatra, tigers are commonly referred to as puyang, a derivative of the Indonesian poyang, which means “ancestor.” In the local Malay culture, the word also has magical connotations — fitting, as tigers are believed to hold supernatural sway over the forests and peat swamps that dominate the landscape here.

Magic or not, the Sumatran tiger’s population has plummeted with the widespread destruction of its forest habitat, primarily by logging and plantation interests. Indonesia has long had one of the world’s highest deforestation rates, and Sumatra is no exception: since 1985, the giant island has lost more than half its forest cover, an area the size of New York state. Today it’s an epicenter of the palm oil and pulp and paper industries, with the tigers increasingly corralled into forest fragments.

Fewer than 400 Sumatran tigers remain in the wild, according to the WWF. Other iconic creatures, such as the Sumatran varieties of elephant, rhino and orangutan, are similarly endangered. Dozens of the big cats are killed every year by poachers as well, with tiger parts a prized ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine.

In “Puyang,” the play’s eponymous tiger yearns for a time when human and animal protected one another – when balance, harmony and mutual aid were the norm. Puyang was around, the story goes, at the seventh-century laying of the Talang Tuwo stone, when the Srivijaya-era environmentalism lauded by Teater Potlot was first written down.

Dating back to the year 684, the Talang Tuwo inscription tells of the establishment by King Srijayanasa of the sacred Sriksetra park, meant to be planted with a varied mix of crops and trees to meet the food and shelter needs of all beings, animals and humans alike.

Indeed, some say the 14 lines of the Talang Tuwo amount to Southeast Asia’s earliest environmental manifesto. For Conie and even some provincial government officials, this ancient history is a source of pride and inspiration.

A scene from “Puyang.” Image by Yudhi Semai/Teater Potlot.

“Puyang still takes pains to avoid harming humans,” Conie says, “even though he has been branded an enemy.”

While the fictional Puyang avoids harming humans, in today’s world, conflict between tigers and humans is on the rise.

As the forest shrinks, the animals are flushed out into the open and into often grisly encounters with humans. After a tiger injured a person in North Sumatra this year, the cat was hunted down and killed by villagers, although government rangers had tried to capture it alive.

Residents of Perumpung Jaya, a village near Sembilang National Park in South Sumatra, refuse to raise livestock for fear of drawing out tigers from the nearby forest. “If they’re hungry they’re sure to attack,” Supriyadi, 38, told Mongabay during a recent trip to the area. “This clearly threatens our lives.”

It’s a tragic state of affairs, Conie says, and the play’s message is that to address the problems of the present, we should look to the past. All might be redeemed if the environmental heritage of the Srivijaya Empire were reclaimed.

“For thousands of years Sumatran tigers have guarded our ancestors and our landscapes from damage,” Conie has written. “Whether in the highlands, lowlands or peat swamps, in every habitat where you find tigers, the ecosystems are healthy.”

It’s a flip on the usual view, which sees tigers as the consequence, not the cause, of healthy landscapes.

Conie says he hopes “Puyang” can “inspire greater awareness about maintaining our landscapes, in line with the needs of all living things.

“The tiger’s presence helps return traditional values of sustainability to our society.”

Banner: Teater Potlot actors perform a scene from “Puyang” in Palembang, South Sumatra. Image by Yudhi Semai/Teater Potlot.

The story was reported by Mongabay’s Indonesia team and was first published on our Indonesian site.

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