Indonesian rapper aims to increase awareness on the critically endangered Sumatran Tigers. Calls for stakeholders and public to join hands to protect the last surviving tigers of the archipelago.

My kin is already extinct in Bali and Java islands
I am the last roar, call me the Sumatran Tiger
I was once a legend, they even called me a king
But now I am a prey, my status is in danger
My forest is logged out, burned,  giving way for oil palms
The name of your God is profit, you are making my forest suffer
My soil is bare, dry, barren, just look, you bandits
You have your eye on the prize, leaving the earth screaming in pain

This excerpt of a song by Tuan Tigabelas titled “Last Roar” is describing the condition of the Sumatran Tiger which is now on the brink of extinction. The Natural Resources and Ecosystem Conservation Agency (KSDAE) estimates only around 600 of them are spread across the Sumatera Island.

The world has nine tiger subspecies spread across the globe. Three of them are endemic to Indonesia — the Bali Tiger (Panthera tigris balica), the Java Tiger (Panthera tigris sondaica), and the Sumatran Tiger (Panthera tigris sumatrae). The Bali tiger was declared extinct in 1937 while the Java Tiger’s turn came in the 1980s. The Sumatran tiger has become the only tiger subspecies in Indonesia that has been able to survive up until now. But it may not be for long.

The two main factors behind the extinction of tigers is illegal hunting and deforestation. Tigers are killed for their pelt. The forests that are their habitat, are destroyed to make way for oil palm plantations, acacia and pulp estates. The Warsi Indonesian Conservation Community (KKI) is noting that only 11 million hectares of forests are left in Sumatra. If the rate of deforestation is not controlled, then the remaining forests would also disappear within the next 25 years. And with it, the Sumatran Tiger.

Efforts by many conservation NGOs and groups to save the Sumatran Tigers continue with one common hope: that the last tiger subspecies in Indonesia, does not go extinct. An Indonesian rapper, Tuan Tigabelas, is voicing his concerns through his music which he dedicates to the conservation of the Sumatran Tiger.

To learn how Upi, how the rapper is better known, is involved in the campaign to protect these large cats, The Society of Indonesian Environmental Journalist (SIEJ) spoke to this Sumatra-born musician on Wednesday, July 21, 2021.

When did you start to have an interest in voicing the issue of the Sumatran Tiger?

There was initially no intention to focus on the Sumatran Tiger. In the world of rappers, we usually have an alter ego that reflects who we are. Because I am from Sumatra, I chose the fiercest animal in Sumatra. Tigers are the top predator in the forest. But when I was asked about the Sumatran Tiger, I could not answer.

I then tried to seek information by taking part in discussions. It turned out that I was wrong, Tigers are not the top predators. The real top predators are the humans. From then on, I felt a calling to give a voice to the last tigers in Indonesia.

You wrote Last Roar that speaks about the conditions of the Sumatran Tiger. How did that happen?

I often write songs that contain social criticism and of the government. But when I wrote a song about tigers, I used a different approach. I want the tigers to criticize humans, me included. I imagined  what a tiger would want to say to humans, to explore the character of a tiger, how they feel about their home being burned, their cubs too, and the disappearance of their life. I combined that with music from the rap culture and traditional music. This is a new approach for me, I do not want to forget my origin as a Sumatran.

To create this music, I worked together with West Sumatrans known as Minang who can play traditional music instruments so that there is an Indonesian nuance. Then, I worked together with friends who care for the Sumatran tiger, among others the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). We proceeded together to produce Last Roar.

Last Roar by Tuan Tigabelas has been viewed more than 1.6 million times

So, this song came out of your concerns over the conditions of the Sumatran Tiger?

I realized that when I speak about the Sumatran Tiger, I am not just talking about an animal. I am talking about the forest, trees, and the balance of nature. Talking about tigers is to talk about the balance of the forest.

Why did you choose “Last Roar” as the title?

Indonesia has three tiger species — the Javan tiger, the Bali Tiger and the Sumatran tiger. But only the Sumatran Tigers remain. This is the last roar of the last species that Indonesia has.

Because it is threatened with extinction, I will continue to voice the Sumatran Tiger issues. Including the problems of mining, customary land grabbing, and the diminishing land for farmers.

This song is also the first one by Tuan Tigabelas that talks about conservation. How challenging was it to write a song about wildlife conservation?

It was not that difficult. What took time and was rather challenging was the research. I do not want to be someone who just talks, who does not understand the content and the issue around which the song was written. That’s why I started to read articles about the Sumatran Tiger, watch films on tigers, and at the same time seek information on the declining population of tigers in Indonesia.

I even had to isolate myself for one month just to research for data, before I began to decide to write the lyrics and the song itself. I wrote the song three times and I listened to them so many times. Only when I get to the third song, I started to like it.

The collection of data was the most difficult, there are not many open data sources. While information about the Sumatran Tiger is actually an important campaign.

What was the reaction of listeners when the Last Roar was released?

Quite a lot of response. For me, this song is extraordinary because I am doing something for the Sumatran Tigers. This song made people aware about the existence of different species of tigers in Indonesia. There were also people who sneered and criticized. 

The “Last Roar” was accused of being a tool to boost my popularity in the music industry. I also had to face conflicts with workers of oil palm plantation and other commodities. They sent direct messages my social media account that contained scorn. To be honest, I do not want confrontation, I prefer to discuss things with others. Each speaking in accordance with their own capacity.

You are now often involved in Sumatran Tiger campaigns, what have been the challenges?

As I mentioned earlier, the criticisms. I was accused of getting paid by international organisationsto get involved in the Sumatran Tiger conservation. I also had to engage in dialogues with myself, there were contradicting arguments within myself when talking about the Sumatran Tiger, forests, oil palm plantation, and other plantations.

To be frank, one of the personal debates that I still have is, I am still using palm oil in my daily life, to cook and to shower. I think and ask myself, how could I remain committed to what I am saying in my music? I am trying to reduce this dependence.

Meanwhile, on social media, many are angry at me and question my knowledge about palm oil. If campaigns against forest fires and bans on palm oil are continue, what will happen to the plantation workers? That is the question that I often get.

I cannot also judge them but this is the risk that comes with voicing the conditions of the Sumatran Tiger. For me, if there are people who disagrees, then that would mean I am on target. No opposition means I have not yet been successful in provoking thoughts.

For you personally, what makes tigers special?  Do you have any interesting experience with tigers? Can you tell us about it?

What is interesting is that I am a Sumatran, my is from Medan, my father from Aceh, and my wife from Bengkulu. I often hear about folk stories on tigers. In the past, humans lived alongside tigers. Tigers were not just animals but also part of the culture and history of men as guardians of the forests.

Besides that, the opportunity that  I had to enter a forest to make a video clip, has been like a spiritual journey for me. I have been able to meet with people who are dedicated to the Sumatran Tiger. I realized that I have not been able to do anything yet for the conservation of tigers that are threatened with extinction. That experience and encounters changed my life.

Changed your life?

I met with a WWF ranger who has dedicated his life to safeguarding tigers and cleaning up tiger traps. Once I left that forest, I stopped littering, only used water as needed, and even stopped eating meat.  Every time I see meat on a plate, I always think of the fate of the tigers. I have decided to stop eating meat.

Talking about the Sumatran Tiger, the Natural Resources and Ecosystem Conservation Agency (KSDAE) estimates there are 600 Sumatran tigers left in 2021. What is your comment?

That 600 figure from the KSDAE is only an estimate, I think that the exact number is lower than that. Every year we hear of decline in the number of tigers. I worry that in the next decade our grandchildren will no longer be able to see the Sumatran Tiger and can only see it on Youtube. That is possible.

What factors, you think, are driving the extinction of the Sumatran Tigers?

If we read or watch the news, what is always being reported about the extinction of the Sumatran Tigers is that it’s caused by hunting. We are always presented with information on that, and the perpetrators are still at large. I think the one factor that has not been mentioned by the government and the media is land conversion which is impacting the tigers and other animals.

If we want to save the tigers but their habitats disappear because of land clearing, how can conservation continue? Where would the Sumatran Tigers live if there are no forests anymore?

Tigers are solitary animals. If there are more tigers but forests are being cleared, the tiger population will decline and gradually extinct.

To me, the right solution to conserve the tigers is by safeguarding their home. So, the attention should not only be on their number. If we protect their homes, the population will grow well. I think, that’s what should be the focus for the government, environmental activists, the society, and the media.

The habitat of the Sumatran Tiger is being eroded by deforestation for new oil palm , acacia , pulp and other commodities’ plantations. What is your comment on this?

If we talk about laws and other aspects, for example on drugs, there is a death sentence. Why are companies that burned down forests and land are never convicted with heavy penalty? In my opinion, forest and ground fires, and the hunting of tigers are extraordinary crimes.

This is a genocide that takes place every year. The government must be strict and firm. Revoke their business license and apply the death sentence. Because when we talk about forests, we are talking about the rights of many people, about the need for oxygen, about the rights of animals, and about nature protection.

What about conservation efforts by the government, environmental activists and the society at large?

All sides are working hard to conserve the tigers. I am convinced that everyone is doing their part. What remains is for the government to collaborate with the public as well as with NGOs. We cannot ignore the fact that government’s performance is slow, a collaboration is needed to conserve wildlife.  If the government has the resources, it should not close itself to cooperation. All must work simultaneously.

I am a musician, I voice it through the music platform. Everyone can do  something according to their respective capacity. I am donating the royalty I get from sales of the album and the merchandise, for the conservation of tigers. That is what I can do.

What have you achieved during your involvement in the tiger protection campaign so far. 

The prevention of the decline in population is not my capacity, unless I am from the Environment and Forest Ministry. I am a musician who can help raise awareness. I can start to see the impact, social media users remember my music when I talk about the issue of tigers.  Awareness about the importance of Sumatran Tigers is growing.

The changes may not be apparent now, but in the future. Hopefully  future generations will be more courageous in voicing out issues about the Sumatran Tiger. For me, if there is just one person who listens to my music and then willing to work for the conservation of tigers, that would be the highest reward for me as a musician.

Talking about young people, do you think many of them know about the Sumatran Tiger?

Maybe they do care, I am confident of that. What we can do is to package the issue to make it easy to understand and conventional. If it comes from the government, they would not be interested because the issue is not packaged with pop culture.

How do you invite people to get involved in the campaign for the conservation of the Sumatran Tiger?

The simplest thing is to donate, and provide information on tigers. I created a platform that encourages people to buy merchandise, that’s how they can contribute. To take part in the conservation of tigers is quite easy. One can also take part in webinars on tigers.

So, we are curious why you chose the stage name Tuan Tigabelas. What is the story behind that?

Tuan means a man, Tigabelas or thirteen is the date of my birth. Besides that, I wanted to change the image of the figure 13, the figures that carry bad luck. I use the name Tuan Tigabelas to change that perception into one that inspires.

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