This Tiger Was Thought Extinct. Then a Single Strand of Hair Was Found.
9:33:32 2024-04-08 249

The plight of the Sumatra tiger is famous worldwide. The critically endangered predator is the only living tiger population left to prowl the Sunda Islands in Indonesia.

Or so we thought.

For decades, scientists had seen neither hide nor hair of the Sumatra tiger's relative, the Javan tiger, which once prowled Indonesia's most populated island. In 2008, after more than a century of merciless hunting and habitat loss, the Javan tiger was declared extinct.

But that is not where its story ends. In 2019, ten years after scientists had given up hope, the hair of a suspected tiger was plucked from obscurity.

On August 18, a local resident and conservationist by the name of Ripi Yanur Fajar claimed to have glimpsed a tiger outside a village in West Java. He reported the sighting to a researcher, Kalih Raksasewu, who, together with a government employee, Bambang Adryanto, went to visit the site of the alleged spotting.

 

The duo saw footprints and claw marks that they say could have been made by a tiger. Clinging to a fence that separates the village road from a plantation was a single strand of hair.

In March of 2022, the discovery was submitted for genetic analysis to Indonesia's Biology Research Centre for National Research and Innovation (BRIN).

The results were compared to that of Sumatran tigers as well as a 1930 museum specimen of a Javan tiger, which are both thought to belong to the same subspecies (Panthera tigris sondaica).

 

The mysterious strand matched the genetics of the Sumatran tiger with 97 percent similarity. The genetic distance between it and the museum Javan tiger was 0.3 percent.

"From this comprehensive mtDNA analysis we conclude that the hair sample from South Sukabumi belongs to the Javan tiger, and that it falls in the same group as the Javan tiger museum specimen collected in 1930," conclude the authors of the research, including Raksasewu and Adryanto.

"Whether the Javan tiger actually still occurs in the wild needs to be confirmed with further genetic and field studies."

Even if this population of tiger is still alive, in all likelihood it is not thriving and is in dire need of protection.

Centuries ago, the Javan tiger was widespread in forests and thickets. But today, Java is the most populous major island in the world, housing more than half of Indonesia's population. To sustain all those humans, much of the tiger's habitat has been destroyed to make room for agriculture.

As farms took over forest and the tiger's native sources of prey dwindled, the predators turned to livestock and were hunted as a pest for decades.

Come the 1970s, no more than a dozen Javan tigers were scattered across wildlife reserves and national parks in both East and West Java. Many of those individuals disappeared in the following years.

 

Infrequently over the years, people living in Java have reported sightings of tigers and footprints. Though none have been confirmed, some locals have suspected deaths among their livestock have been caused by tigers lurking nearby.

The discovery of the tiger hair in West Java gives weight to alleged encounters of the past, but it doesn't necessarily bring hope for the future of the animals. Rapid habitat loss is ongoing in Java. Little more than 2 percent of its original lowland forests remain, and some experts fear all that biodiversity will soon be gone. Java leopards, often mistaken for tigers, are considered by some locals to be the last guardians of the dying forest.

We might not have seen the last of Java's tigers, but unless conservation efforts ramp up quickly, it probably won't be long until we do.

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