Jan 23, 2018 Last Updated 3:31 AM, Jan 6, 2018

In the forests of the night

Published: Jul 30, 2007

John McCarthy

In January 1999, a local newspaper described the fear gripping villages around Labuan Haji, a township located on the western coast of southern Aceh. A tiger had attacked a schoolboy picking nutmeg in a forest garden near Hulu Pisang village, close to Mount Leuser. The tiger pounced, mauled, and finally killed the youth. Over the next few days, the tiger stalked the area, leaving footprints in the surrounds. Farmers abandoned their gardens for some days. Villagers wanted to poison the tiger, but the local authorities and the village heads sought the help of a traditional tiger expert a pawang.

During 1996-9, just before the latest conflict broke out in Aceh, I spent twelve months in villages around Tapaktuan, the capital of South Aceh. People often discussed the tiger. This dangerous animal clearly preoccupied villagers. Older villagers described how tigers were once common. People walking through the village at night sometimes met tigers sitting by the side of a path. Tiger attacks were always unusual, but they did occur. As villagers farming nutmeg in hillside gardens feared the tiger, they would go into the hills with three or more friends.

In South Aceh, villagers farming in the hills belong to an association of farmers working gardens within the same hillside territory. It is known as a seuneubok. Each seuneubok chooses a person respected for their forest skills to act as the customary head. When possible, farmers prefer to have a pawang work in this capacity a person with special esoteric knowledge. Village lore holds that pawang can contact the guardian spirits of the forest, the aulia, who appears in dreams. With the help of the aulia, pawang can call tigers.

In his book, Indonesian Eden: Aceh's rainforest, Mike Griffiths described how villagers believed dreams worked as a medium for communication. 'Years ago, a lady had a dream in which two orphaned kittens approached her and begged for food. She consented and the kittens expressed their gratitude. The next day while working in her ladang [fields], she saw two tigers at the forest's edge. Recognising the significance of her dream, she prepared food and left it at the place where she saw the tigers, whistling as she left. After that she continued to leave food out, and periodically the tigers came to eat perhaps learning to associate her call and whistle with the opportunity for easy food.'


By tradition, each seuneubok has an understanding with one or more tigers known as seuneubok tigers, tigers that spend part of each year in the seuneubok. Older villagers recall that once there were up to three tigers in any seuneubok. Nowadays a seuneubok is lucky to have one. According to a tacit agreement between seuneubok members and the tiger, the resident tiger hunts pigs and other pests while leaving human beings alone. Villagers report that this tiger will also warn of the presence of 'strange' tigers from outside the area by leaving distinctive claw marks on the main path. When villagers see these marks, they understand that there are wild tigers in the seuneubok, and they will not go to their forest gardens that day.

In return for the tiger's benevolence, villagers provide for it. For instance, even to this day, custom requires that during the durian harvest farmers leave five durian fruit from each tree for the seuneubok tiger. Once a year, at the time the forest flowers, the seuneubok holds a feast, and villagers always think of resident tigers. At this time, seuneubok heads able to act as pawang call the tiger and provide rice, meat and vegetables. In the course of their duties, a seuneubok head able to act as a pawang becomes familiar and even befriends the seuneubok tiger, often meeting them in their forest gardens. At the time of the annual feast (kenduri), resident tigers have been known to seek out the pawang to remind him of the feast, leaving signs in the dirt, calling out, or even sleeping under a pawang's forest hut.

The customary rules relating to the seuneubok have a sacral element, and these are binding for humans and tigers alike. Villagers understand that tigers, being under the command of the aulia guardian spirit, enforce the customary laws. Any villagers attacked by tigers are held to be evil people who have broken Islamic precepts. A seuneubok head explained to me that the resident tiger 'is on duty there. If there is someone who steals from the village and takes it to the mountain, he will be disturbed by the tiger.' However, the pawang will hunt a tiger that violates the tacit seuneubok covenant. If a tiger attacks and kills someone, the pawang sets out to trap it.

A local forestry official told me that tigers tend to come down into the village areas during the western monsoon. Females bring their cubs down to avoid older males who can attack cubs, while older, tired tigers also descend out of the hills at this time.

To deal with tiger attacks, the forestry department regularly uses the skills of the pawang. 'We used to have a pawang on our staff,' the official said. But most pawang are now over fifty, and young people are no longer training to become pawang. Like the tiger itself, the pawang are becoming increasingly rare. Since the departmental pawang died, the forestry department has had to hire pawang to help track errant tigers. According to the forester, pawang 'say that a tiger won't want to enter a trap if he is not in the wrong.'


The Sumatran tiger is highly endangered. According to one estimate, less than four hundred still survive in Sumatra's shrinking forests. Nonetheless, in some villages in South Aceh villagers often see them. 'People say the tigers are going extinct,' an older villager said to me, 'but those people haven't been here.' A forester confirmed this: 'We don't know the number of tigers,' he said, 'but there are lots of tigers in some places, and here tigers often disturb the villages.'

As the forestry department wants to conserve tiger numbers, they even try to safeguard man-eating tigers. While villagers wish to catch a killer tiger, if possible foresters will drive the tiger back into the jungle. 'We have to be very sensitive handling these cases', he said.

Over 1998-9, the World Wide Fund for Nature found 66 Sumatran tigers ready for illegal sale in the markets of Sumatra. Traders sell tiger products such as skin, teeth, claws and whiskers, mostly as ingredients in traditional Chinese medicines. The Jakarta Post reported recently that traders can earn between Rp 300,000 to Rp 500,000 per tooth. Poachers who catch tigers use poison or snares, but these are not pawang. 'We haven't seen this [ie. pawang poaching tigers for gain] ourselves', the forestry field officer noted, 'although there are storiesA pawang is generally angry if people catch tigers. This is because he considers the tiger as part of his happiness'.

When a villager was killed near Tapaktuan in the mid 1990s, a pawang caught the errant tiger. Before the forestry department took it away, the local forestry office put the caged animal on exhibition for a week. Later, foresters released this representative of a highly endangered species near the regional centre of Tapaktuan. But villagers were disappointed. The tiger had killed someone, and they felt it wasn't right to return his freedom.

John McCarthy (J.McCarthy@murdoch.edu.au) is a researcher at the Asia Research Centre, Murdoch University, Perth, Western Australia.

Inside Indonesia 65: Jan - Mar 2001

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