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Prime Real Estate for Sumatran Tigers? Lush Forests
The study is the first of its kind to systematically investigate the Sumatran tiger’s use of different land cover types for habitat.
Credit: courtesy of WWF

Sumatran tigers love to lounge in forests far from humans, new research suggests. They prefer these pristine forest habitats to human-disturbed sites like plantations, which they tend to avoid.

What do they love about the forests? The understory cover — plants that shield light from above at ground level. They will even inhabit plantations with dense ground-level plants (and humans keep their distance). The ground-level plants give them cover for their hunting activities.

"As ambush hunters, tigers would find it hard to capture their prey without adequate understory cover," Sunarto Sunarto, who performed the work as a graduate student at Virginia Tech and now works with the World Wildlife Fund, said in a statement. "The lack of cover also leaves tigers vulnerable to persecution by humans, who generally perceive them as dangerous." [Iconic Cats: All 9 Subspecies of Tigers]

The Sumatran tiger (Panthera tigris sumatrae) is a critically endangered tiger subspecies that inhabits the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Their population is between 200 and 250 mature individuals. No groups are larger than 50 and most are getting smaller.

The species decline rests on the loss of habitat: Their natural forests are being logged and turned into plantations. The Indonesian government has set up protected lands, but about 70 percent of the tiger's habitat lies outside of these designated areas. The researchers urge that in order to save the species, we must protect the tiger's preferred habitat.

"We hope that plantation managers and concession owners can use the recommendations of this report to apply best management practices to further protect Sumatran tigers from extinction," Anwar Purwoto, director of the Forest, Freshwater, and Species Program at WWF Indonesia, said in a statement.

You can follow LiveScience staff writer Jennifer Welsh on Twitter @microbelover. Follow LiveScience for the latest in science news and discoveries on Twitter @livescience and on Facebook.