September 14, 2017 10:00 am JST

Saving Sumatra's tigers while in Sydney

Taronga Zoo uses technology to help endangered cats far away

HAMISH MCDONALD

A Sumatran tiger explores the front of a make-believe park ranger's vehicle poking into its enclosure, as Sydney schoolboy Lawson Boyle watches from inside. (Taronga Zoo/Rick Stevens) © Taronga Zoo/Rick Stevens

Walking along what appears to be a typical Indonesian village street, I pass a little warung, a shop selling soap and light bulbs, and come to an arch marked "Taman Nasional Way Kambas" (Way Kambas National Park). Inside, well-muscled Sumatran tigers are pacing their domain. This little piece of the Indonesian island of Sumatra is the Tiger Trek attraction at Sydney's Taronga Zoo, a $14 million combination of high-technology simulation and theme park that opened on Aug. 20.

Visitors enter the Tiger Trek through a cylindrical chamber fitted out as an aircraft cabin. The "windows" are video monitors showing a "take-off" from Sydney airport, an abbreviated transit through tropical clouds, and a swoop over Sumatran jungles before "landing." On their ensuing walk along a twisting path through rocky outcrops and thick jungle, visitors are separated only by plate glass or wire mesh from Tiger Trek's stars: Clarence, Jumilah, and Jumilah's adult cubs Kembali and Kartika.

Today, Kartika is exploring her enclosure, checking leftover bits of animal carcass for any worthwhile morsels, then settling on the sun-warmed bonnet of a Toyota Land Cruiser bogged in mud.

But Tiger Trek is about more than bringing zoo visitors closer to these handsome predators. It takes the century-old harborside institution further along a path from zoological voyeurism to active conservation. Taronga Zoo's new enclosure can take up to 11 tigers, and is linked to a global "stud book" of 260 animals for breeding in captivity.

The zoo's experts believe it will also help to save the remaining 400 wild tigers in the waning jungles of Sumatra, which are threatened by loss of habitat and poaching, their skins sought for decoration, their bones for quack medicines. Indonesia is not the only place where this is happening. The global tiger population has fallen by 96% since Taronga Zoo opened in 1916, according to Taronga conservation expert Belinda Fairbrother. But helping to save the Sumatran Tiger is Taronga's key objective.

"We could not get our message out widely because English is not our language," said Widodo S. Ramono, director of the Indonesian Rhino Foundation, a nongovernmental organization that has helped save the Javan and Sumatran rhinos from extinction. "Taronga is very advanced in the way it uses media."

VIRGIN JUNGLE The tiger enclosure also highlights issues facing their natural habitat. Way Kambas is a 1,300-sq.-km stretch of lowland and swamp forest in Sumatra's Lampung Province, home to tigers, rhinos, elephants and crocodiles, which was set aside for conservation in 1937. Over the decades, it has lost about 40% of its primary forest through illegal timber felling and squatter settlements. Elsewhere, virgin jungle is being lost to oil palm plantations. Indonesia has been trying for a decade to limit new plantations to areas that have already lost their primary forest, and conservation groups have set up a certification system for "sustainable" palm oil.

A government ban on new clearances and the certification scheme both face resistance because they hamper the growth of the economically important palm oil industry. Indonesia produced about 35 million tons of palm oil in 2016, and neighboring Malaysia 21 million tons. Together they account for about 85% of world production. The oil goes into cosmetics, soaps, foods and biofuel.

Taronga has been helping Way Kambas for years, sending veterinarians to carry out medical procedures on rhinos and helping local people find work in the park as guides and hosts for eco-tourists. The zoo has also entered the contentious area of palm oil certification. The "check-out" section at Tiger Trek is a simulated "mini-supermarket" where visitors can click on a range of everyday products to see whether they use certified palm oil.

Given the global reliance on palm oil for processed food and household products, there is no prospect of a consumer boycott, but building support for certification through initiatives such as Tiger Trek seems to be a credible option.

"This is in support of Indonesia's objectives," said Cameron Kerr, Taronga Zoo's chief executive. "We work in a very encouraging and positive way, so we reward those companies that are trying hard."

If so, this bit of simulated Sumatra in Sydney could be a model for other countries to combine views of "celebrity animals" with lessons about ecology that are delivered back to commercial forces that are endangering rare wildlife -- and, through deforestation, perhaps the human species as well.

Hamish McDonald is a Sydney-based former correspondent in Jakarta, and author of "Demokrasi: Indonesia in the 21st Century."

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