Bambang M., Contributor, Yogyakarta
On arrival at small cave in Sumber Wungu village, about 70 kilometers east of Yogyakarta, Didik Raharyono hurried into the cave that locals claimed was home to a Javan tiger.
Armed with a video camera, Didik carefully looked for any signs that suggest existence of tiger: feces, footprints, hair and leftovers – anything. Meanwhile, his wife, Dewi Kurnianingsih, interviewed a peasant who claimed he had seen a tiger in the area.
After two hours, Didik came out with fecal matter and pieces of bones he believed were good signs that proved the locals’ claim. Some pieces of the bones resembled human fingers and ribs.
“I am curious about the villagers’ claim that Javan tigers live here,” says Didik, a 1998 graduate of Gadjah Mada University’s school of biology.
At first, he wanted to install a trap camera near the cave’s entrance to satisfy his curiosity but then he thought the expensive equipment could be stolen if he did.
Didik is obsessed with finding hard evidence to prove his belief that the Javan tiger (Panthera tigris sondaica) still exists although it was officially declared extinct in the 1980s.
His ambition has taken him into forests and outlying caves in many parts of Java.
The official pronouncement was confirmed by the WWF (then the World Wildlife Fund, now called the Worldwide Fund for Nature) after it completed its research in Meru Betiri National Park, East Java, in 1994.
Didik remains in great doubt about all the conclusions that the beast is extinct and is determined to conduct his own research.
He became interested in the research after Matalabiogama, Gadjah Mada University’s biology students club for nature — where Didik also belonged — conducted research with the Meru Betiri National Park in 1997.
Then he was excited to find signs which he claimed showed that the tiger may still exist, three years after WWF completed its survey there.
The club raised the matter in 1998 in a national seminar at Gadjah Mada. One of its recommendations was that more surveys should be conducted in Meru Betiri National Park.
“That was when I convinced myself that I should do my own survey on the Javan tiger,” said Didik, who was born in Pati, Central Java, on Jan. 28, 1970.
Yayasan Kappala Indonesia, an environmental NGO that Didik is affiliated with, established its own research team and Didik was named chairman.
“One of this team’s purposes is to transfer the tiger tracking skill to local people,” Didik said.
His curiosity was also driven by the fact that the government ignored local people’s apparent sighting of the tiger. Some people living near forests told him that they still poached the animal even after it was declared extinct.
“They (the villagers) are not stupid because they know the animal still exists. Besides, they can precisely describe the Javan tiger’s features.”
To make sure that what the villagers saw were the real thing, Didik asks specific questions about the animal. To his surprise, the self-proclaimed poachers have also given him tiger parts as “gifts”: teeth, skin or whiskers of the tigers they had killed some months or years ago. He collects all the parts as material evidence to prove his thesis.
When he met with the poachers, Didik also tries to “lecture” them about the need for conservation.
His biggest problem in carrying out the work is money. “Because the tiger has been officially declared extinct, it is difficult to get sponsors. In 1998, Meru Betiri National Park refused The Singapore Zoo’s offer of funding to install trap cameras in the forest, believing that it would be a useless project.
Didik’s research team, meanwhile, cannot do much without funds from the sponsors of funding institutions. But Didik won’t give up. He has established networking with other environmentalist groups which can give him information about the tiger. Often, he will go on his own account.
After five years, Didik has collected strong evidence to strengthen his belief that the tiger still exists in Java.
The evidence in his collection are bits of hair, skin, footprints, teeth, feces and eyewitnesses’ accounts. He has written and co-authored a number of scientific reports about forests in Java.
His collection of tiger’s hair has been made into a dissertation about the Javan tiger by Erwin Wilianto, a student of biology at Gadjah Mada. His theory that the hair belonged to Javan tiger has been confirmed by the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI).
In fact Didik once sighted a Javan tiger in Meru Betiri National Park when he and his research team was there for a 14-day survey.
He says the tiger appeared at the bush thanks to the help of a local shaman but before he managed to photograph it, the beast ran away after the two frightened rangers that accompanied the team also ran scared.
“As we were inside the tent at night, we heard the tiger roar at about 2 a.m. That was the most memorable experience of all our expeditions,” he recalls.
He has not set a deadline for proving this thesis. “I will not set a time limit for myself,” he says.
His spirit to track down the Javan tiger got a boost from Dewi, the woman he married two years ago. She will go with him wherever he likes to quench his curiosity about the tiger.
“He says he will make me a live bait to fool the tiger to come out,” she quips