The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Villagers thought they killed a supernatural shape-shifter. It was an endangered Sumatran tiger.

The carcass of a Sumatran tiger hung from a ceiling in the Hatupangan village in North Sumatra. (Muhammad Agussalim/AFP/Getty Images)

A Sumatran tiger hangs, dead and disemboweled, from a ceiling in a public hall in a remote village in northern Indonesia.

A photograph shows the lifeless animal strapped to a wooden plank — and dozens of villagers crowded around to see it.

It’s not certain why the critically endangered animal was slain Sunday in a village in North Sumatra, but local news reports say it had mauled at least one or two residents who had followed it to its lair — to determine whether it was a mythological, supernatural being.

The Jakarta Post reported that superstitious villagers feared it was a “siluman,” or shape-shifter, and when rangers would not kill it, they took matters into their own hands and decided to kill it themselves.

“The tiger was sleeping under a resident’s stilt house when the people struck him repeatedly in the abdomen with a spear,” an official from the Batang Natal subdistrict told the newspaper.

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Hotmauli Sianturi, with the Natural Resources Conservation Agency, told Reuters that conservationists urged the residents not to harm it, explaining that a trap had been set to try to catch the big cat.

“We explained to the villagers that the tiger is an endangered animal … but they didn’t like our way of handling this situation,” she told the news agency.

Under Indonesian law, people are prohibited from capturing, injuring or killing protected animals, such as the Sumatran tiger. Such crimes carry a prison sentence of up to five years and a fine of up to 100 million rupiah, or $7,000, according to the country’s conservation act.

Still, Sianturi told Agence France-Presse that concerned residents “insisted on killing the tiger.”

“After killing the animal, the locals hung up its body for display. It’s very regrettable,” she said.

The incident occurred a day after the United Nations’ World Wildlife Day. This year’s theme, “Big cats: predators under threat,” aimed to bring attention to big cats’ declining populations.

The Sumatran tiger, or Panthera tigris sumatrae, is listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as a critically endangered species, with an estimated 400 to 500 remaining in their natural Sumatran forest habitats. The organization states that the population is declining because of “habitat loss” from expanding oil palm plantations, “human-tiger conflict” and “illegal trade.”

According to the World Wildlife Fund:

Sumatran tigers are the smallest surviving tiger subspecies and are distinguished by heavy black stripes on their orange coats. The last of Indonesia’s tigers — as few as 400 today — are holding on for survival in the remaining patches of forests on the island of Sumatra. Accelerating deforestation and rampant poaching mean this noble creature could end up like its extinct Javan and Balinese relatives.
In Indonesia, anyone caught hunting tigers could face jail time and steep fines. But despite increased efforts in tiger conservation — including strengthening law enforcement and antipoaching capacity — a substantial market remains in Sumatra and the rest of Asia for tiger parts and products. Sumatran tigers are losing their habitat and prey fast, and poaching shows no sign of decline.

“The Sumatran tiger is part of our identity as a nation,” Noviar Andayani, Indonesia program director for the Wildlife Conservation Society, said in a statement to The Washington Post. “We must learn to embrace this magnificent animal before it’s too late.”

Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, called the recent killing “absolutely heartbreaking.”

“But we can prevent the next wildlife tragedy — and save thousands of endangered species, like Sumatran tigers — by dedicating sufficient resources for collaborative habitat restoration, bolstering key protections and enforcement efforts, and engaging local communities and showing the economic benefits of conserving wildlife,” he said in a statement.

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After an investigation into Sunday’s slaying, conservation authorities said the tiger was missing internal organs as well as its teeth, claws and some skin.

Reuters reported the parts are sometimes sold as artifacts or used in traditional medicine.

“We regret that they killed the tiger,” Sianturi, of the conservation organization, told the news agency. “We will prove that its body parts are being traded.”

It’s not clear whether those responsible for killing the tiger will face prosecution or what the penalties would be. In 2015, AFP reported that four men in a village in Indonesia’s Aceh province were taken into custody after killing a Sumatran tiger and attempting to sell its body parts. They faced up to five years behind bars, according to the news agency.

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