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Sumatra: Tracking ‘The Boss’

“The mountains you’ll be trekking in are one of the most successful tiger habitats in the world,” Debbie Martyr warns me as we sit in her timber and clapboard house in the foothills of Sumatra’s Kerinci Mountains.

Sumatra: Tracking ‘The Boss’
Gunung Tujuh, Kerinci National Park. Image: Mark Eveleigh

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“Tiger attacks are rare but there have been cases of maneaters. You really don’t want to be sleeping out in that hammock of yours!”

In the early ’90s, Debbie packed in a promising journalism career to fight for the Sumatran tiger. With the help of Fauna & Flora International, she established Tiger Team, patrolling in collaboration with local park rangers, to protect Kerinci Seblat National Park. In the following years, this was one of only five parks in the world where the tiger population actually increased.

“You realise, don’t you, that even here, chances of seeing a tiger in the wild are almost zero?” Debbie points out. “Last year, my Tiger Team guys actually sighted tigers just three times. On almost half of their patrols they came across tracks but they were in the jungle for up to a week at a time.”

Early the following morning, I’m trekking in the Kerinci foothills with Dave Yoder of Wild Sumatra Adventures. Tiger Team patrolman Jayendri has brought us here because he’s had a tip-off that ‘The Boss’ has been seen in this area.

There’s a tradition in jungles all over Indonesia that it’s foolhardy to utter the name of the tiger (harimau in bahasa Indonesia) when you’re in the bush.

“Many people say you can summon him by using his name,” Jayendri had explained, “so, out of respect, we often refer to him as The Boss.”

The trail we are walking is a natural wildlife corridor between two sections of the national park. We walk spread out along the gravel edge of the track, none of us stepping on the patches of softer sand, which, in this rocky terrain, provide a conveniently clear tracking surface. We’ve been scouting the area for almost an hour when I spot a pair of half-covered indents in the sand. I carefully raise a fallen leaf to reveal the unmistakable curve of a pugmark. The lack of nails prove that it can’t be a dog and I’m aware that there’s only one cat that could possibly leave marks the size of soup bowls.

There’s a strange sensation — a primordial reaction that dates back to a time when our forebears were prey for the big cats — that you get when you are on foot and unprotected in the presence of a powerful apex predator. I’d felt it while tracking jaguars in Costa Rica, among tigers in India and when I noticed that my camp was surrounded by lions in Uganda. And I had it more than ever now, crouching like a fat, tasty macaque on a jungle track in Sumatra.

I remembered what Debbie had told me about tiger attacks: “They’re usually what Indonesians call salah alamat,” she’d said. “That means ‘mistaken address’. The tiger almost always thought he was attacking something else.”

Squatting in the track, looking at the pugmarks of the The Boss’s powerful front paws I felt my spine tingling and had the uneasy feeling that maybe this time it was me who’d come to the wrong address.