The World Wildlife Fund on Wednesday released video footage of a bulldozer buzzing trees in a protected forest that is home to endangered Sumatran tigers, but the government said it remained unclear if the land-clearing was illegal.
The footage first shows a male tiger walking up and sniffing the video camera, which was installed a year ago to monitor tiger populations. A week later, the camera filmed a bulldozer clearing trees in the same area to make way for palm oil, WWF said.
A tiger is seen soon after walking through the flattened landscape.
Ian Kosasih, a director at WWF-Indonesia, said the camera trap was installed in a plush corner of Bukit Batabuh, a forest in Riau province that is protected from commercial exploitation.
"When we set the trap, there was just a path there," he said, adding there was no way of knowing who was to blame for the land-clearing or their motivation. "But it seems like they were preparing it for a palm oil plantation."
There are only around 3,200 tigers left in the wild worldwide.
The Sumatran tiger, which today numbers at around 400, is the most endangered subspecies, largely because of illegal poaching and the destruction of their habitat for palm oil and wood pulp plantations.
Bukit Batabuh is considered crucial for conservation, because it acts as a corridor between two national parks.
WWF said the area captured on film was declared protected by the Riau provincial government in 1994, but Auria Ibrahim, the forestry ministry's director general for forest protection, said the area was not classified as conservation forest.
Though the images were captured in June, they were only recovered and brought back to the capital, Jakarta, this week. A nighttime shot from May also shows a male tiger spotting the camera, sniffing it, and then walking away.
A mother and two cubs were filmed months earlier by another video trap 200 yards away, WWF said.
Foresty Ministry officials said they knew about the footage and were investigating.
But it was too early to say if the bulldozing activities were illegal because, while protected from commercial development, with the right permits local officials could authorize road-building, an official at the ministry said.
A dispute between the palm oil industry and environmentalists has broad implications for Indonesia, whose plans to limit forest clearing may slow the aggressive expansion of plantation firms in the world's top palm oil producer.
"If we look at the status of the area, it is not an area dedicated for palm oil, which indicates this might be illegal clearing," Kosasih said. "This tells us that law enforcement is weak and improvement is needed."
Habitat destruction, he said, was also putting tigers in closer contact with people and increasing the risk of attacks on humans.
Indonesia plans a two-year moratorium on new permits to clear natural forest, under a $1 billion deal with Norway aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation.
Poor planning and a lack of coordination between regional and central governments have undermined forest protection efforts in Indonesia, said Daniel Murdiyarso, a scientist with the Center for International Forestry Research.
"Conflicting spatial planning is the general problem. Everybody has their own idea of land classification. If someone says this area is protected but another says it is not, that's the problem," he said. "The role of coordinating agencies should be strengthened."