On Patrol With Indonesia's Elephants


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. But now a patrol team made up of tame elephants and local farmers is having some success in stopping the killings along the borders on the Bukit Barisan National Park in South Sumatra.

Elephants are protected species in Indonesia but law enforcement is weak. In one generation Sumatra elephants have lost 70 per cent of their habitat. Their jungle is rapidly being converted for farming, palm oil and pulp and paper plantations.

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

“I can’t describe how I am feeling … we have young children,” says one young mother carrying her baby. “I am worried… can’t describe how frightened I am, they are close to our land.”

But Mahout Alfian Efendi from the elephant patrol team explains that until recently the area was an elephant track.

“Before they could just keep walking … just keep going around,” says Efendi, “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.”

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

Photo by Rebecca Henschke

Ranger Philipus Samirun 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 they will get rid of the elephants the easy way, the brutal way,” says the ranger. “They kill them and the elephants become more endangered.”

The ranger says that since the elephant patrol started work five years ago the elephant population has been on the increase.

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 moved here from the over populated island of Java to carve out a farm from the jungle.

Every week elephants come at dusk and eat their crops. One night, two years ago, his father was killed while trying to clear the elephants away. Sucipto and his brothers stood by helplessly, 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,” he says. “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,” says Gendon.

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

Photo by Rebecca Henschke.

Not long after Miskun Gendon’s relative was killed he was asked to join the patrol and become a mahout. He patrols the park every day on one of four tamed elephants that make up the elephant patrol in this region.

“Illegal loggers. We are here to stop them from coming into the national park,” says experienced mahout Heru Santoso. “If they see us on the elephants they run away. Ninety per cent of the illegal farmers who used to farm inside the national park have been moved out.”

The team is 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 set-off fireworks to frighten the elephants away.

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 used to be one of the illegal farmers inside the national park. He saw elephants as a threat before, but now bathes the elephants each day in the nearby river. He tries to educate his family about the importance of protecting the elephants.

Photo by Rebecca Henschke

“I explain to them the role of the national park and the elephants and the other animals that live in the park,” he says. “I tell them how the national park is the lungs of the world.”

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

This region of Sumatra has the highest rate of population growth in Indonesia. The number of people living here has increased from under 2 million in the 1960s to over 6 million this year.

But elephants have suffered an 80 per cent population loss since the 1930s. Recently, a herd of seven elephants were found dead — believe poisoned near a plantation in Riau.

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

“Out of the cases I have worked on very few have found there way to court … It’s very hard to find the suspects … But we need to remain optimistic,” he says, “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 used to work with elephants and here is the photo. My grandchildren need to be able to see the elephants themselves and know what elephants are really like,” he says. “If they are extinct they will just cry when they see my photos.”

This story was originally broadcast on asiacalling.org

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.