Tracking Tigers Is Just As Dangerous As It Sounds

Matthew Luskin is a conservation biologist, wildlife ecologist, and National Geographic grantee. He spent a year in the rain forest of Indonesia tracking tigers through the remaining three largest national parks—and it was seriously dangerous. “When there's a tiger around you can't sleep. You can barely eat. You can't do anything because all you are is scared for your life.” Right before they started their expedition, there were tiger attacks. “One guy was eaten alive and the other three were kept hostage in a tree for four days, and it took the military to come with guns to scare them away,” Luskin said.

Luskin is trying to understand how important tigers are to the ecosystem. The Sumatran tiger (Panthera tigris sumatrae) is the last of the island subspecies. “Because tigers are being lost rapidly from across the entire region and maybe the entire world, and nowhere is that more important than Indonesia, where the Balinese tiger already went extinct in the early 1920s. The Javanese tigers went extinct in the 1970s, and now the Sumatran tiger is at great risk of being extinct in the next 50 or a hundred years, and so that might have cascading impacts throughout the ecosystem.” Sumatran tigers are threatened by poaching for Chinese medicine, and the remaining tiger habitat in Indonesia is being rapidly deforested. The forest is fragmented amidst oil palm plantations.

Luskin and his team used remotely triggered camera traps to understand where tigers are and why they're there in order to help conserve them. They carried as many cameras as they could—almost a hundred of them—and distributed them over an area larger than the city of Chicago (270 square miles). “We attach them to trees along wildlife trails. That way, anything that walks by, the camera will automatically take a photo,” Luskin explained.

They had some pretty close calls. “There were times when we would set a camera trap and leave and the first photo after that would be a tiger walking in our same direction.”

After two or three months, they hiked back in to the jungle and retrieve the memory cards. “Tigers are uniquely identifiable because their striping pattern is basically a fingerprint,” Luskin said. “We use that to identify how many individuals are there and how often they're going by our cameras to try to estimate the population size.”

They routinely found the same individual tiger in a forest patch far from a national park on multiple occasions, months apart. This means that they are regularly using the habitat outside of national park boundaries. “They're everywhere that there is forest, and they're travelling through plantations and agricultural fields to get to small patches of forest every now and then as well,” Luskin said. “The reason why that's not great is that that increases their chance of attacking people, of attacking livestock, or of being seen by poachers. As soon as poachers know where tigers are, they're going to go catch them. Tigers are actually quite easy to catch because they follow distinct wildlife trails, so if you set a snare on one of these wildlife trails you actually have a high chance of catching a tiger.”

Their research highlighted that tigers will remain in all sorts of forests, no matter if they're logged, degraded, or fragmented—as long as poaching is controlled. “This has both positive and negative sides,” Luskin said. “Positives: It can be beneficial for tiger populations. The negatives: It might increase human-tiger conflicts in these areas where humans and tigers are trying to coexist.”

Luskin also worked on updating the methods and data used to estimate the population of tigers in Sumatra. “My estimate is 960. That's half of what it was about 25 years ago, but double what people thought it was.”

But collecting data wasn’t his primary goal during his time in the field. “My most important goal when I'm out here is staying safe and the safety of my teams, which is quite difficult given the conditions, and the fact that we are weeks away from any medical help,” Luskin said. Then comes the goal of collecting more data to better estimate the tiger population and understand what is driving their decline in order to stop it.

He continues, “It's really fun to be a explorer, but the amount of stress was overwhelming. For me, I don't have a family, so it's one thing, but I was in charge of 11 other people who all had families and kids … I've said this before: I will never do that again. It was way too dangerous.” When Luskin explains to people why he does this kind of work, he points out that now is the crucial time to study intact interior forests. “This is maybe the last time in history we'll ever be able to study a truly pristine ecosystem, because even in Indonesia they're being cleared at such a high rate that we'll never have the sort of abilities to understand a natural ecosystem and how everything works like we do today.”

Be sure to check out more from other National Geographic Society research grantees in our digital series, Expedition Raw.

Learn more about Sumatran tigers.

PRODUCER/EDITOR: Carolyn Barnwell
VIDEO: Wido Rizqi Albert and Jarrett Hedrick
SERIES PRODUCERS: Chris Mattle and Jennifer Shoemaker
GRAPHICS: Chris Mattle and Babak Shahbodaghloo