World Elephant Day: DNA Studies Necessary to Save Sumatran Elephant Population (Indonesia)


Jakarta Globe

Date Published

As the population of Indonesia’s critically endangered species continues to decrease, local wildlife organizations and authorities scramble to save them before the animals permanently vanish.

World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Indonesia has estimated the population of Sumatran elephants standing between 1,400 to 1,700 in 2016 — a decrease of 1,000 from estimates made in 2007.

To further investigate the threats, WWF Indonesia ventured into molecular biology with Eijkman Institute for Molecular Biology to study the animal’s DNA, identify population count, distribution, sex ratio and ages.

“We have conducted the study since 2012, and collected DNA samples from elephant dung at Tesso Nilo National Park area and its area. From the analysis, we were able to identify 113 different individuals, and estimated a minimum population size of 154 Sumatran elephants at Tesso Nilo and its surroundings,” WWF Indonesia wildlife ecologist Sunarto said on Thursday (11/08).

During the research period, Sunarto observed the habitats of the Sumatran elephants are lost to concessions for commodities, such as palm plantations, coffee, acacia and eucalyptus.

“Eighty percent of these elephants are living in concession areas and with the amount of acacia plantations growing, the elephants have now adapted to eating acacia to survive. However, it’s not the same with eucalyptus, as there is no scientific evidence that elephants can eat [eucalyptus],” Sunarto said.

Human-elephant conflicts within Indonesia have ranked the country as highest in Asean, with the conflicts largely stemming from a lack of food in the natural habitats.

Herawati Sudoyo, deputy head at the Eijkman Institute and a co-author of the study, said the institute has been involved in other wildlife projects, including wildlife forensics to catch wildlife crime perpetrators.

“We have cooperated with the criminal investigation unit in wildlife crimes like ivory trade and tiger hides. With molecular biology and DNA studies we are able to identify if the product is actually a part of an animal, and if the animal is a protected species,” she said.

She said DNA studies are needed to build a database of Sumatran elephants to better track population size, gender ration and genetic diversity, especially as the species faces the constant threat of extinction.

In the study, Herawati and her fellow authors noted that elephants deaths are mainly caused by two threats: poaching and human-elephant conflict, which they have urged prevention of further deaths by serious law enforcement.

The study also revealed that the research location, Bukit Tigapuluh National Park in Riau, has an extremely low population density of Sumatran elephants, compared to areas in India, Sri Lanka and even areas in Borneo.

Meanwhile, elephant veterinarian and Way Kambas Park training center head Dedi Chandra disputes the center’s “best in Asia” motto.

“We claim that it’s the best in Asia, but in reality the conditions of the place is ridiculous — the elephant cages have been around since 1985, there is no electricity, no clean source of water and no quarantine area,” he said.

According to Dedi, the conservation area receives very little funding, despite monthly upkeep costs of up to Rp 10 million ($760) per elephant – and Dedi has to take care of 65 elephants at the centre.

“When Way Kambas was declared as an Asean Heritage Park, I had mixed feelings. Of course I was proud, but now it has become a huge responsibility,” he said.

Dedi believes that the declaration will bring tourists to the park, but tourism could either become an opportunity, or a problem, especially since the park is still poorly managed.