PELINDUNG, Indonesia -- At the end of a busy day cutting trees with
chain saws, the four timber thieves camped in the Sumatran jungle. Three
of the loggers rested on a raised wooden platform, while Siadul, the
fourth, prepared food below.
He was sitting on the ground eating his dinner when a hungry Sumatran
tiger, driven from its habitat by the relentless logging of the rain
forest, leaped out of the darkness onto Siadul's back, ripped out a
chunk of flesh and began dragging him away. Nature had taken its
"It was like a cat catching a rat," said Siadul's friend Ponimin,
fellow illegal logger who, like many Indonesians, uses only one name.
The Sumatran tiger -- one of only about 500 left in the wild -- would
have succeeded in taking Siadul but for a felled log that blocked its
path. The tree cutters fired up their chain saws and scared the animal
away, but it was too late for Siadul. He died within hours.
To locals, who believe the tiger is the enforcer of proper human
behavior in the jungle, the killing in November was punishment for some
unspecified violation of the forest people's code, which includes
prohibitions against adultery and sharing food from the same cooking
pot. But to environmentalists, the attack was the inevitable result of a
timber harvest that is wildly out of control.
Across Indonesia, loggers have struck on a massive scale, destroying
vast tracts of rain forest, selling the timber overseas, and turning
much of the jungle into farms and palm oil plantations.
Government officials say that Indonesia, a sprawling archipelago of more
than 17,000 islands, is losing an expanse of forest nearly the size of
Switzerland annually, and with it the habitat of endangered tigers,
rhinoceroses, orangutans, and elephants. Scientists believe that
hundreds of plant and animal species are going extinct each year. At
least 75 percent of the logging is illegal, said Environment Minister
Nabiel Makarim, but the weak central government, plagued by graft, is
powerless to stop it. "If this goes on for seven or eight years," he
said, "we won't have any more forest."
Even the country's 376 national parks and conservation areas have fallen
victim to the illegal harvest. Nearly every park has been assaulted by
chain saws, officials say, some so severely that they are no longer
viable as nature preserves.
The rate of logging has escalated dramatically since President Suharto
was forced to step down in 1998. The authoritarian leader made a
practice of rewarding his cronies with profitable logging concessions
but kept some forests off-limits. The new central government under
Megawati Sukarnoputri has granted greater autonomy to regional
officials, and some have opened forests to logging, reaping the profits
The pace of destruction is highest on Sumatra, an island that straddles
the equator. Specialists warn that Sumatra's lowland forests -- the
richest in biodiversity -- could disappear outside national parks by
Tigers are not the only creatures fighting back. In southern Sumatra,
villagers have been cutting trees and planting coffee for years in the
Bukit Rindingan protected forest. The adjacent South Bukit Barisan
National Park is home to as many as 700 elephants, but about 50,000
people have moved into the preserve, clearing the jungle and building
"It is forbidden to conduct any activities in the protected forest, but
in fact it has become a settlement," said Tamen Sitorus, director of the
national park. "The villagers think: `Why don't we kill the elephants?
They are useless.' "
In the squatters village of Sinar Harapan, residents chopped down trees
on a route traveled by a herd of 13 elephants. On the evening of Nov.
28, the elephants appeared at the edge of the jungle and began eating
the farmers' coffee bushes. Waving torches and banging on wooden drums,
the villagers drove them back.
The next day, most villagers fled, but one stayed behind: Mistad, a
50-year-old farmer who had helped cut down the trees. At midday, the
elephants entered the village and crushed him. "One man dead, trampled
by the elephants because he farmed in the protected forest," Sitorus
said. "If the elephants' habitat is shrinking, the elephants will come
out of the forest. That is the law of the jungle."
Last year, the number of elephant attacks on humans skyrocketed.
According to forestry authorities, 16 attacks were reported from 1998
through 2002. In the first five months of 2003, there were 48, at least
three of them fatal to the humans.
Apart from animal attacks, officials say illegal logging contributed to
floods and landslides that killed more than 140 people in 2003. Makarim
predicted that the number will jump this year as the illicit harvest
The Indonesian Forestry Department has reported that 5 million to 9
million acres of rain forest were lost each year from 1997 to 2000.
Since then, the destruction has clearly soared, but the department's
monitoring is so lax that it has no estimate of how much forest is being
destroyed. The Indonesian Forum for the Environment estimates that trees
are being cut at more than 10 times the sustainable-harvest rate.
Indonesia has some of the world's largest tropical rain forests and
ranks with Brazil as home to a great diversity of animal and plant
species. But the nation is also renowned for corruption, and timber is
one of its most corrupt industries.
Indonesia is wealthy in timber, oil, and minerals but suffered for three
decades under Suharto, who enriched his family and friends but did
little to develop the country or its people. Since the Asian economic
collapse of 1997, Indonesia has struggled to recover.
By the official count, nearly 40 million people are unemployed among a
total population of more than 225 million. Some citizens long for a
return to the stability of dictatorship, and others advocate a
government based on conservative Islam. But many observers believe that
for now, graft is what makes the country run.
Much of the illegal logging is carried out by large concerns in cahoots
with officials in government and the military.
Officials accept cash to issue permits or to look the other way as
log-laden trucks rumble down the highways. Despite a ban on the export
of raw logs from Indonesia, dozens of ships with timber cargo sail daily
to Malaysia, Singapore, and other Southeast Asian countries with no
questions asked. By some estimates, Indonesia is losing $1 billion a
year in tax revenue from the trade.
"Illegal logging is not just a few people with a few chain saws,"
Mike Griffiths, who helps manage the Leuser conservation area in
northern Sumatra. "It is backed by people with money and power."
Some of Sumatra's heaviest logging is in the central province of Riau,
where huge swaths of forest have been cleared for palm oil plantations.
For centuries, people and tigers lived in the area with few conflicts.
But as logging accelerated in 1999, tigers began coming into villages
looking for food.
Since 2001, tigers have killed at least six people near the coastal town
of Dumai and possibly as many as 30, authorities say. Many of the
victims were illegal loggers whose deaths were not officially reported.
"It seems that tigers attack humans to eat them," said Jusman, head of
the Dumai forest police. "Most of the tigers we catch are thin. I think
it's because they cannot find their usual food."
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.