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Tiger, tiger, still burning bright (well, possibly)

People thought the Javan tiger was extinct. But a forester's reported sighting has stirred conservationists, writes Richard Lloyd Parry in Jakarta
THREE years ago, a forester named Ali was walking through the jungle of the Meru Betiri National Park when he had some bad luck. He chanced on a group of Javan tigers, Indonesia's fiercest predatory mammal, up to seven feet long and weighing 140kg.

Worse, they were a family group, a tigress and her young tiger cubs. "The father tiger is dangerous," says Ali, "but nothing is more dangerous than the mother tiger when she is with her children."

Ali, 56, was on a expedition to gather durians, the famously smelly tropical fruit, armed only with a sickle. "I looked at the tigers ahead of me on the path," he says, "and I asked them to be good to me."

To encounter a family of tigers at close range is amazing, and to walk away unharmed is remarkable. But Ali's story verges on the miraculous, for by the best scientific reckonings there are no tigers left in this part of Indonesia. After decades of depletion by hunting and the encroachment of humans upon their natural habitat, the Javan tiger died out more than 10 years ago. Panthera tigris sondaica is officially extinct. Ali's jungle encounter was the equivalent of a meeting a Tasmanian wolf, or a dodo.

According to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), the last authenticated sighting of a Javan tiger was in the early 1970s. Over the following 15 years, its numbers dwindled to a handful of animals in the Meru Betiri park on the easternmost tip of Java, and in the 1980s it is believed to have become extinct. But extinction is very difficult to prove, and as the Chinese Year of the Tiger began last week, there were scientific initiatives afoot to prove that the Javan tiger was still alive, if scarcely prospering.

Among people living near Meru Betiri, a remote area of rainforest a day's drive from the nearest city, there is no doubt. Few claim actually to have seen a tiger, but everyone believes in their continued existence. In the village of Sumber Ayu, a coffee grower called Nahrawi, 32, described two sightings last year, both during the durian season, when tigers are said to especially active. Another local man produced half-a-dozen long whiskers, sold to him for five thousand rupiah (30p) each, said to have been shed by tigers at a jungle feeding area. On his wall was a huge faded skin, the trophy of his father "Tiger" Suharto, who slayed a man-eating Javan tiger 33 years ago.

Officials of the local branch of the Forestry Protection and Natural Preservation Department (PHPA) believe recently gathered samples of fur and faeces support this anecdotal evidence. They are pressing for funds for automatic camera traps, which could prove once and for all whether the tigers are still out there. Meanwhile, there is a proposal by the University of Indonesia to send a tiger-hunting expedition into the Mt Bromo national park, to the west. "Even if there is only a small number of them, we could cross-breed them with zoo tigers through artificial insemination," said Sunariwan of the PHPA who believes between three and five tigers may still be in the jungle. "We never give up hope that we could save the species."

Not everyone shares his faith. The anecdotal evidence is not conclusive as the word local people use for tiger - macan - also refers to leopards and panthers, which also inhabit the area, and are not endangered. Even experts can confuse the tracks of the different species and so far no DNA material has proved the survival of the Javan tiger. There is the problem of money. As Indonesia struggles with rising food prices caused by a full-blooded economic crisis, few people are thinking about the fate of a few, possibly non-existent, big cats. Conservationists have their hands full trying to save the Sumatran tiger, which is known to survive, though in critically low numbers, in Indonesia's westernmost island.

"With so little money to go round, and almost no money for the conservation of other species, there's a part of me that wonders whether it's worth it," says Ron Lilley, of the WWF in Jakarta. "It'd be such a small number that to bring them back from the brink would take a long time and be very expensive. If I knew where the last Javan tigers were, I'd be very careful who I told. There are collectors, in Indonesia and abroad, who would pay anything to whisk them away."

It would be a big investment in what may turn out to be no more than a legend, or wishful thinking. Ali's encounter with the cubs and tigress, for instance, ended most unexpectedly as his bad luck turned astonishingly to his advantage. After his plea for mercy, the beasts responded; a cub approached and, after Ali placed a white collar around its neck, he became a pawang, a tiger shaman, able to summon the creatures at will. In the durian season he goes to the mountain every night and meets his tiger, now grown "as big as a horse".

"Don't you believe me?" asks Pak Ali, smiling a smile full of silver teeth. "And are you brave? If you don't believe me, I invite you to meet my tiger. But when you hear the voice of the tiger, you will be afraid."