Saving the elephants of Sumatra (Indonesia)


Rebecca Hanschke, SBS News

Date Published
Conflict between humans and elephants is intensifying on the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

As their habitat dramatically shrinks, elephants are eating crops and in some cases killing farmers.

In return, endangered elephants are being poisoned and killed.

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Sumatran elephants are now critically endangered, with half the population lost in just one generation.

Elephants are a protected species in Indonesia, but law enforcement is weak.

Now a patrol team made up of tame elephants and local farmers is having some success in stopping the killings.

SBS went on patrol with them along the borders on the Bukit Barisan National Park in South Sumatra.

Frightened farmers from the Pemerihan village called the elephant patrol after the elephants arrived a week ago.

A young mother carrying her baby watches on with tears in her eyes.

“I can’t describe how frightened I am”, she says. “They are close to our land.”

But as Mahout Alfian Efendi explains, until recently this was an elephant track.

“Before they could just keep walking, just keep going around. But now he wants to go from there to here and then back there but because there are houses now here. They have had to stop here. Now because of development they can’t make their natural journey because there are lots of houses here now.”

In one generation Sumatran elephants have lost 70 percent of their habitat.

Their jungle is rapidly being converted for farming, palm oil and pulp and paper plantations.

And the mahouts of elephant patrol know that when the villagers are frightened, the elephants are in danger.

Ranger Philipus Sam-i-run from the Barisan National Park has seen that many times.

“If there is no elephant patrol then the community feels as if they are not being looked after. And if there is a conflict and they will get rid of the elephants the easy way, the brutal way. They kill them and the elephants become more endangered.”

A small river separates Sucipto’s land from the Bukit Barisan National Park.

His family, like most of the farmers here, is not from this area-they move here from the over populated island of Java to crave out a farm from the jungle.

Every week elephants come at dusk and eat their crops.

One night two years ago when his father was trying to push elephants away, he was killed.

Sucipto and his brothers stood helplessly by watching.

“I saw what happened with my own eyes. There were two elephants. They kicked him from here to there. We cried out but the elephants didn’t take any notice. They kept going until my father couldn’t breathe.”

His cousin Miskun Gendon says farmers saw the national park and the elephants as the enemy.

“We asked the national park, why are you not looking after the elephants? They are meant to be protected species but you are letting them go and destroy our land. It got to a point where there was going to be fight with the national park staff and the community.”

It was in the midst these tensions that the elephant patrol was created in 2009; an initiative from the environmental group WWF in partnership with the national park staff.

Not longer after Miskun Gendon’s relative was killed he was asked to join the patrol and become a mahout.

“I said I can’t do it but they said that they would teach me. So I said OK if you teach me and guide me.”(Before) I was scared. I was afraid. I didn’t see them as a pest but I was scared I would be step on. if I heard the sound of their feet breaking a stick. I would run away.”

But now he patrols the park every day on one of four tamed elephants that make up the elephant patrol in this region.

One of the experienced mahouts Heru Santoso guides them around the park each day.

While riding the elephant he explains what they are looking for.

“Illegal loggers. We are here to stop them from coming into the national park. If they see us on the elephants they run away. 90 percent of the illegal farmers who use to farm inside the national park have been moved out.”

They are on-call, 24 hours a day.

When possible they use the tame elephants to push the wild elephants away from farming land and back into the national park.

If they can’t reach the area of elephants they use the firework method.

Because they are made up of local farmers from the community they act as a bridge between the national park and the community.

Sumarni’s family use to be one of the illegal farmers inside the national park.

He saw elephants as a threat.

But now he has built up an intimate relationship with these giant creatures and bathes the elephants each day in the nearby river.

He says he tries to educate his family.

“I explain to them the role of the national park and the elephants and the other animals that live in the park. I tell them how the national park is the lungs of the world. They can take my information and make there own decisions about if I am right or not.”

Sumarni says even to protect their small batch of the national park requires constant vigilance.

“Sorry to say this but it’s easy to manage and control the animals than it is humans. With humans people say they will obey and then all it takes is one provocateur who comes in and says why are you obeying them and it puts everything at risk.”

This region of Sumatra has the highest rate of population growth in Indonesia.

The number of people living here as increased from under two million in the 1960s to more than six million this year.

In the elephant human conflict it is clear who is losing.

Elephants have suffered an 80 per cent population loss since the 1930s.

Recently a herd of seven elephants were found dead, believed poisoned near a plantation in Riau (ree-ow).

Ali Rizqi Arasyi from WWF says it’s very hard to bring to justice those behind the killings.

“The killings are very hard, I have worked on a number of cases and helped the police with the autopsiesâ¦and out of the cases I have work on very few have found there way to court. It’s very hard. It’s very hard to find the suspects. But we need to remain optimistic and we have to work hard to stop the killings or otherwise more elephants will be lost each year.”

Sumarni says he is working so that his grandchildren can see elephants in the wild.

“So it’s not just like your grandfather use to work with elephant and here is the photo. My grandchildren need to be able to see the elephants themselves and know what elephants are really like. If they are extinct they will just cry when they see my photos.”