Meet One of the Last Traditional ‘Tiger Whisperers’ in Indonesia

Sarwani Sabi says he can communicate with the big cats through rituals.
March 31, 2021, 9:29am
Sumatran tiger
This photo from June 19, 2020 show a female Sumatran tiger inside a cage before being released into the wild. Photo: CHAIDEER MAHYUDDIN / AFP

He sprinkles incense over charred coconut husks, plants a native kincung flower, and recites verses from the Quran: this is how 84-year-old Sarwani Sabi scares off lurking tigers.

“Wherever the tiger is at that time, it will know that I am going to make an agreement with it,” Sarwani told VICE World News in a recent interview. “I say to the tigers, ‘don’t disturb humans, don’t disturb their property, if you disturb them, you will be penalized. If you get caught later, don’t blame us, we warned you beforehand.’”

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One of the last traditional tiger handlers in Indonesia’s Aceh province, Sarwani uses a complex mixture of rituals and mantras passed down from generations of practitioners to communicate with the animals.

“Wherever the tiger is at that time, it will know that I am going to make an agreement with it.”

His services are in more demand with a rise in tiger attacks and human-tiger conflict in recent years, a result of deforestation and habitat loss. Sarwani deals with Sumatran tigers, which are critically endangered, with some 400 found in the world, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

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Sarwani Sabi stands next to the cage holding a sedated tiger caught with his help in June, 2020 in Aceh. It was later released into the wild. Photo courtesy of Istafan Najmi / Leuser Conservation Forum

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Sarwani Sabi (lower right) stands next to a sedated tiger caught with his help in June, 2020 in Aceh. It was later released into the wild. Photo courtesy of Istafan Najmi / Leuser Conservation Forum

From a small village near a forest, Sarwani has been involved in the mysterious art of traditional tiger handling since the 1960s. It was passed down to him by his father, who would take his son along with him on expeditions. Sarwani does the same with his son Ruslan today. In the distant past, tigers would be killed when caught. But with wildlife protection laws, “evicting” the tiger from villages and sending it back to the forest to live has been the norm.

“I have done tiger evictions in almost every village in Aceh Province. I don’t remember exactly how many times, but over a hundred times,” Sarwani said.

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Sarwani (center) kneels on the ground in front of charred coconuts husks while performing a ritual to dispel tigers. Photo courtesy of Ruslan Sabi

After being called in by village leaders, Sarwani—who walks with a cane and is usually accompanied by his son—first looks for the right spot, usually in the area where the crops end and the jungle begins. Sometimes the ritual is carried out in places where tigers have passed, as seen in footprints or camera traps. 

“I have done tiger evictions in almost every village in Aceh Province. I don’t remember exactly how many times, but over a hundred times.”

Sarwani said he is trying to make a pact with a tiger by persuading it to never return to the village or the fields with crops, where most encounters and sightings occur.

He said his record speaks for itself. In early March, Sarwani carried out a ritual in a remote village in East Aceh. Residents told him tigers have not been seen there since his visit.

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But he is not always successful.

If the tiger does not obey his warning, then it must be caught and released into the wild separately with the assistance of authorities. Sarwani may sometimes be asked to speak to the tiger while it is in a cage to help keep it calm. One of these encounters was filmed last year and uploaded to YouTube where it has been viewed more than 11 million times.

Sometimes, tigers are wounded or experience trauma when caught, after which they go through a period of recovery and rehabilitation before being released back into the wild. But Sarwani said this is “very rare.”

“Usually, tigers always obey my warnings,” he said.

Some of the more violent encounters between tigers and humans in Indonesia over the past few years have occurred near the Gunung Leuser National Park, which stretches from Aceh to North Sumatra province. Tigers have killed precious livestock and in April 2019, one mauled a farmer to death. Conservationists are also battling poaching.

Local residents want someone like Sarwani to come in and fix the problem.

“We have already told the district government to call the tiger handler, unfortunately our demand has not been met yet,” Malik Nasution, the head of Timbang Lawang village, told VICE World News in February.

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But authorities want to rely more on modern methods such as camera traps and habitat preservation to combat the problem, citing a lack of rigorous evidence for Sarwani’s methods.

“We are afraid that…there will be rituals that we cannot accept scientifically,” said Hotmauli Sianturi, the head of the government-backed North Sumatra Natural Resources Conservation Center.

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A Sumatran tiger is trapped before being released into the wild. Photo courtesy of Ruslan Sabi

Other experts believe the rituals may work but only as temporary reassurance, similar to a placebo.

“It might be effective for a while to give people a sense of calm, but I still doubt it will be effective over the long term,” said Sunarto, a tiger researcher who has worked for the World Wildlife Fund in Indonesia and goes by one name.

At Aceh’s government conservation center, however, Sarwani remains in demand.

He has “special ability passed down from generation to generation,” said Agus Arianto, who runs the center that has enlisted Sarwani’s help since 2007.

Agus said human-tiger conflicts have subsided in the area, and he credits the traditional handler’s techniques. 

“Because what Sarwani is doing is like communication, telling [humans and wildlife] to protect each other's space,” he said.

Sarwani has no plans to retire just yet, and receives a small honorarium from the conservation center in Aceh. He’s ready for more work too.

“I will be ready to be summoned whenever the community needs me,” he said.