In Indonesia’s Aceh Jaya regency, on the lush island of Sumatra, so-called ‘elephant cops’ were dispatched this week in a bid to put an end to a fierce battle between man and beast.
In a joint initiative of conservation NGO Flora and Fauna International (FFI) and the Aceh Natural Resource Agency, four elephants were on Monday taken by their mahouts, or handlers, from the Saree Elephant Training Centre to their new base at the Sarah Deu Conservation Response Unit (CRU) facility on the edge of the Ulu Masen Conservation Zone.
From the base, located on land donated by a local community that borders an area where wild elephants roam, they will now embark on routine patrols, following morning bathes and breakfast, according to Sofyan, one of the mahouts.
Those heading the project say the importance of the elephants’ mission cannot be underestimated.
The Sarah Deu forest area, covering some 738,855 hectares and stretching across five regencies in the northern part of Aceh province, is seen as a vital source of environmental and economic benefits to Aceh’s two million inhabitants, including electric power generation, carbon production and tourism.
The Ulu Masen Conservation Zone alone is home to a vast array of Sumatran wildlife, much of which is threatened by extinction, including tigers, honey bears, Sumatran orangutans, Sumatran goats, Rangkong birds and Asian elephants.
But the area has also long been the scene of a territorial battle between wild animals and humans living on the edge of the woodland, as they struggle to coexist amid fights over farming land.
As the conflict has waged on, a number of wild elephants have been found poisoned in the area in recent years.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature protection group lists the Sumatran Elephant as ‘critically endangered’.
The CRU now aims to bring harmony to the area by using forest rangers and the ‘elephant cops’ to keep the wild elephants away from human settlements.
The CRU will attach GPS tracking devices to the wild elephants, which will send regular location updates allowing them to monitor the herds’ whereabouts and deploy the ‘elephant cops’ to push them back if they get close to settlements.
In addition to training the elephants and forest rangers to police the woodland, the CRU is also educating local communities on how best to use the forest for economic gains, with lessons about crops that have the most commercial potential, and the ones that wild elephants will not try to eat.
It is hoped that eight CRUs will eventually be established across Aceh to improve conservation, but this depends on funding and the community’s commitment to the program, which has already failed once.
The four ‘elephant cops’ began patrolling the area in 2009, but the project closed four years later after failing to win the support of the local community.
But after they left, the conflict – particularly with wild elephants – worsened, and local people begged the government to re-start the CRU.
Chairil Anwar, chief of Sampoiniet sub district, said this time around the community is committed to keeping the elephants on guard.
“It’s a big mistake we made in the past by rejecting these elephants in our area before. But now we feel happy and feel safe if the elephants stay with us in our area as our protector,” he said.