Indonesian Volcano Spews Less Ash, Still Dangerous

Hot ash poured more slowly from an Indonesian volcano Friday, but experts warned Mount Merapi could still erupt again as villagers reported that even rare leopards living near the crater have begun to evacuate.

In a reminder of the volcano's deadly power, the National Disaster Management Agency raised the death toll from a series of eruptions to 206 on Friday. That figure continues to edge upward as officials count those who have died from respiratory problems, heart attacks and other illnesses related to the blasts.

Mount Merapi began unleashing torrents of hot gas, rock and other debris more than two weeks ago after years of dormancy. The most significant blast came last Friday, the deadliest day at the mountain in decades.

The volcano is the most volatile in Indonesia, a vast archipelago of 235 million people that is prone to seismic activity because it sits along the Pacific "Ring of Fire," a horseshoe-shaped string of faults that lines the Pacific Ocean.

Ash has continuously shot out of the crater since it roared to life Oct. 26, occasionally canceling international flights into and out of Jakarta, hundreds of miles (kilometers) to the volcano's west. After the output slowed overnight, an advisory from the Volcanic Ash Advisory Center in Darwin, Australia, showed the ash patch was well clear of the capital. The airport in Yogyakarta, at the foot of the mountain, however, remained closed.

Officials warned residents that less ash does not mean the volcano is finished.

"The activity of Merapi is still high, but the intensity of eruptions is reducing now. But people still should be careful. Merapi is still on high alert," said Surano, a state volcanologist who uses only one name.

While officials struggle to persuade hundreds of thousands of people who live on the volcano's fertile slopes not to return to their homes, a new kind of evacuee has been seen in recent days. Villagers checking on their homes and crops have seen Javan leopards -- who live in a national park near the crater -- heading down the mountain.

"I was shocked and afraid that they will pounce on me ... so I ran as fast as possible," said Ahmad Sokidi, whose house is six miles (10 kilometers) from the summit.

The cats likely feel the continuing tremors, said Tri Prasetyo, who runs the park, and are seeking safer ground. It's also possible that prey is scarce in areas scorched by searing gases.

The Javan leopard -- a subspecies of the cat only found on the island of Java -- is critically endangered, with no more than 250 left in the wild. Some put the total population as low as 50.

Joko Tirtono, the manager of a zoo in Yogyakarta, said zoo keepers are now searching villages where the leopards have been spotted and laying traps in which they hope to capture the cats alive.

While the total cost of the volcano disaster has not been tallied yet, officials have already estimated that tens of millions of dollars in crops, forest and fish farms have been lost. Garuda Indonesia, the country's flag carrier, said it has lost 2.5 billion rupiah ($280,000) each day since the airport at Yogyakarta closed last Friday.