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ENVIRONMENT FEATURE: Sumatra tigers in Palawan

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Sumatra tigers in Palawan
Text and Photo By Dr. Rebekka Volmer

Sumatra tigers are the last remaining group of Sunda-tigers. The smallest subspecies of today’s largest cat was once spread through Java and Bali – and tigers maybe even reached Borneo and Palawan. A team of archaeologists from the University of Cambridge and the University of the Philippines, led by Dr. Victor Paz, Dr. Philip Piper and Dr. Graeme Barker, discovered bones from tiger paws in caves in Borneo and Palawan. The bones were found together with remains from deer and pigs, as well as artifacts of people dating back roughly about 10,000 -14, 000 years ago. Since all tiger bones discovered at these caves are parts of the feet, tiger paws might have been used in the frame of ceremonies held at caves, where also burials of humans are found. Tiger paws are used in rituals, as it is still known from indigenous people in Borneo today. Community leaders of the Kenyah and Penan people apply tiger teeth for lie detection8. The fangs of the king of the jungle are considered as highly powerful, though, tigers were generally referred by the people to by a lesser name “aso” (same meaning as in Filipino: dog).

In Chinese traditional medicine, it is said: “Carry a claw in your pocket or wear it as a piece of jewellery and you will possess courage and be protected from sudden fright”. China, but also other Asian countries like Vietnam, South Korea and Malaysia are using almost all parts of the tiger for traditional medicine. The belief to capture the spirit of wild animals is deeply serrated in animistic cultures and strongly connected to their medicine.

Tigers also play a significant role in the lesser spiritual oriented western cultures.  The majestic cat is a people magnet in every zoo all over the world. And skins of tiger and leopard were not only worn by Dayak warriors in Borneo but also the iconic coat by western women until the 1970s expressing elegance and status.  While Chinese are willing to spend 300 dollars for a bottle of tiger bone wine, the use of printed “animal look” in sexy lingerie is the western attempt to solve the problem of impotence. Tigers as a symbol for bravery, strength and even sexual energy are a cultural universal.

However, the beautiful and elegant cat is on the red list of IUCN as an endangered species. The population trend is decreasing. In the past, hunting for ritual practices and traditional medicine was no harm to wild populations. Since the need for tiger bones increased, the use of tigers for traditional medicine became a threat to tiger populations.  However, the major thread for the tiger is habitat destruction. In case of the Sumatra-tiger, the need for palm oil – an ingredient of you can find in the next chocolate bar or your favorite cookie  – is driving the destruction of tropical rainforest in ahead. Even if poaching and illegal hunting would be wiped out completely, the chances for survival of tigers would be almost zero. There is not enough space for a viable tiger population anymore. The extinction of tigers is, thus, the responsibility of all humans worldwide.

The strength of tigers is also “used” for fundraising to protect habitats. People are not only willing to pay more for tiger bone wine but also to donate money to protect tigers from extinction – and in this way also all other plants and animals living the protected tiger habitat. Tigers are also flag-ship species and protecting other wildlife through attracting donators.

But what drove tigers to extinction in Borneo and Palawan? The answer to this question is not easy. The presence of tiger bones in archaeological samples is not directly a proof for a natural occurrence of the species. The bones could have reached the islands through trading with people from Sumatra, Java or the Asiatic mainland, and tigers might have never reached Borneo and Palawan. However, if tigers were not naturally occurring at the islands, the question of why people shall use a strange animal in their rituals? The Bisaya tribe in Borneo claims that tiger teeth owned by them are in fact from Borneo tigers passed by through several generations. However, ritual practices using tiger bones are not known from indigenous people in Palawan or other Philippine Islands today. Thus, tigers were probably present in Borneo and Palawan but became extinct because prey was not enough to sustain the population of the top-predator. Although, in both Islands deer and pigs can be found today and also during the Ice age, the soils of Palawan and Borneo are less fertile as in the volcanic Island of Sumatra, and prey animals are thus less frequent in Borneo than in Sumatra. Thus, the prey was not enough. Since Palawan was smaller than Borneo, the tiger was probably becoming extinct earlier, maybe even because of hunting by humans. The search for more discoveries on tigers in Palawan is ongoing and currently lead by Janine Ochoa, a Philippine archaeologist from Cambridge University. The exploration is ongoing and will reveal more on the role of tigers in Philippine culture soon.

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