Indonesia is preparing to greenlight the construction of several highways through a park that has one of the world's few viable populations of wild tigers, conservationists warned Thursday.
The move would be especially alarming, they said, because it would come just months after the government signed a deal in Russia promising to do everything possible to save the iconic big cats from extinction.
There are about 3,500 tigers left in the wild worldwide. The Kerinci Seblat National Park, which spans four provinces on Sumatra island, is home to an estimated 190 of them -- more than in China, Vietnam, Nepal, Laos and Cambodia combined.
"We need to do everything possible to stop this," said Mahendra Shrestha of Save the Tigers in Washington D.C. "It would be disastrous to one of the core tiger habitats in Asia."
The plans for four roads through the park would open up previously inaccessible land to villagers and illegal loggers, divide breeding grounds and movement corridors, and destroy vulnerable ecosystems.
Shrestha said it makes a "mockery" of the agreement signed by 13 countries that still have wild tigers to preserve and enhance critical habitats as part of efforts to double populations by 2002.
The 1.4-million hectare Kerinci Seblat park, which is divided by the Barisan mountain range and fringed by oil palm plantations as far as the eye can see, also is home to critically endangered Sumatran rhinoceros, elephants, clouded leopards, sun bears and more than 370 bird species.
It also has more than 4,000 plant species.
The Forestry Ministry, which would have to sign off on any deal and request parliamentary changes to Indonesian law on protected land, has remained tightlipped about the plans except to say building roads for development in protected areas is illegal. "It's still just a proposal," ministry spokesman Masyhud, who goes by one name, told The Associated Press.
Still, conservationists are worried because regional leaders -- who increasingly hold sway in the nation of 237 million -- are pushing the plans. With no visible pushback from the central government, the regional leaders may have little problem bulldozing through their proposal.
Provincial officials in Jambi, Bengkulu and West Sumatra argue that four roads up to 40 feet (12 meters) wide are needed in the park to serve as "evacuation routes" for people in the event of volcanoes, earthquakes, flooding and other natural disasters.
"We fully understand the importance of this national park and will do everything to make sure that the environment is not destroyed," said Nashsyah, head of Bengkulu's development planning board, adding that a comprehensive study still needs to be done to educate all parties about the project.
Two-thirds of the tigers in the Kerinci Seblat park are adult females.
It is one of the few places where populations have actually grown over the last five years, thanks largely to untouched habitat and anti-poaching patrols that have helped protect one of the few genetically viable populations left in the world.
There already are four roads through the park. The construction of new, larger highways would bring in tons of heavy equipment, chain saws and hundreds of workers for months on end.
"These roads would further fragment tiger communities and disrupt their movement corridors," said Zen Suhadi of Indonesia's most prominent environmental group, Walhi.
"That's our main concern."
He is among 350 conservationists from dozens of different national and international nongovernment groups that have banded together to argue that the plans would turn Kerinci Seblat into a mishmash of forest blocks putting both tigers and their habitat at risk.
If approved, they say, it would open the way for road building in every protected area in Indonesia.
"We've called on the government to reconsider the plan," said Hariyo Tabat Wibisono, chairman of the local tiger conservation group, Forum HarimauKita. "But we hear it's already gotten the green light."