People and Elephants: Mitigating the Conflict
Once, local farmers rarely saw elephants outside of the rainforest. As the forest rapidly disappears though, elephants and humans come into contact with each other more and more, competing for the same thing - food and a place to call home.
The natural habitat of the Sumatran elephant is shrinking, and so they are feeding from the plantations that have been cultivated where their forest used to be. This leads to conflict and to dangerous situations, for both humans and the elephants.
Elephants were once prevalent throughout almost all of Sumatra. In 2012 there were fewer than 2,000 Sumatran elephant left in the wild making it critically endangered and that number continues to decrease at an alarming rate. Today only a few populations remain, survivors existing in isolation from one another in what is left of the originally extensive lowland rainforests. Bukit Tigapuluh in central Sumatra is home to one of these elephant populations, but the massive habitat loss has led to constant conflict with the local population. In addition to deforestation, this Human-Elephant Conflict (HEC) is the greatest threat to the elephants of Sumatra.
As they roam, even elephants living in sufficiently-forested regions are increasingly coming across fields and plantations providing high densities of premium fodder in the smallest of areas – a golden opportunity from the elephant’s perspective. Conflicts with the plantation owners are inevitable.
The animals destroy crops and dwellings and consequently the livelihood of a community frequently living under the most austere of conditions. In rare cases, humans are injured or even killed by the elephants. Elephants are legally protected but almost no assistance is provided by the Indonesian authorities to help the farmers who are left to their fate. In the past, this helplessness has repeatedly led to the animals being injured or killed out of revenge or sheer desperation, often through the use of poison – a slow, torturous death where all the internal organs eventually hemorrhage.
Working on Solutions that Protect Elephants and People
In response to the Human-Elephant Conflict (HEC) affecting the Sumatran elephant population in the Bukit Tigapuluh ecosystem, FZS Sumatra set up a programme that approaches the problem from two angles:
Organised patrols of the area to monitor elephant movements and wellbeing, to quickly document evidence of human-elephant conflict such as crop raiding and the destruction of dwellings and to meet with affected villagers.
Community engagement and training in techniques to prevent crop raiding without putting people in danger or harming the elephants, and to increase appreciation for the Sumatran elephant as part of the unique natural heritage of Indonesia
This helps both the elephant and the people and is the only way to make peaceful coexistence possible. Many farmers are helpless in the face of the problem represented by the elephants.
We help farmers to minimize the damage to their fields and show them how to behave correctly in an elephant conflict situation in order to avoid danger and accidents. With a mix of nature conservation measures and education, we are cultivating a greater awareness of nature and wildlife which will make acceptance and coexistence possible in the future – the key to the survival of the Sumatran elephant and other species.
Deterrent techniques which are currently in use, developed in cooperation with the farmers, aim primarily at preventing the elephants encroaching into agricultural areas. Among other measures, special electric fences are used (like those familiar from pasture land, but up-sized for elephants), as are watch towers and simple alarm systems. When elephants are sighted near to fields, or when they have already encroached into the plantations, scare guns and smoke bombs are used to drive the animals in the right direction.
As the people in the area have been involved in the project from the very beginning through village groups and community work, they will undoubtedly succeed in managing without outside help in the long term. In combination with effective conservation of the habitat, it will be possible to minimize conflict and, as a result, eliminate the main reason for killing the elephants.
The Anti-Conflict Team
FZS Sumatra set up the Elephant Conservation & Conflict Mitigation Unit (ECCMU) and since its inception, the team has evolved into one of the best-trained elephant conservation units in Indonesia. The work is not easy and a lot is demanded of the ECCMU rangers. Rangers must be flexible thinkers and able to work under the most varied of conditions, and are constantly on the move as elephants rarely stay in one place for long.
The ECCMU operations generally take place far from sealed roads which is why off-road motorbikes are used, taking the rangers quickly and safely to their destinations. On really difficult terrain, patrols and wildlife tracking assignments are undertaken on foot. Anyone intending to become an ECCMU ranger needs to be hardy and welcome physical challenges. Just as important as the physical fitness and technical expertise of the ranger are his social skills.
The problems faced in nature conservation are ultimately caused by humans and so only a change in how people think and act can lead to long-term success. There is virtually no wilderness free of human influence left in Asia. The survival of the Sumatran elephant is directly dependent on the acceptance of the local population. Almost all the ECCMU rangers grew up in and around Bukit Tigpapuluh and are therefore thoroughly familiar with the area and the people.
This familiarity with the region and the locals, coupled with sound practical training in nature conservation, allows the rangers to effectively tackle the current problems and constitutes the basis for long-term success. Young people like our rangers carry the nature conservation concept into the villages and are the basis for a new generation of Indonesians who believe in the coexistence of humans, nature and wildlife and are willing to work towards it.
What Does an Anti-Conflict Ranger Do?
- Standardised Recording of conflicts between locals and elephants and property damage caused by elephants
- Participates in and provides logistical support for wildlife surveys (population counts) and research projects; testing and evaluating methods and strategies used for conflict minimisation
- Radio telemetry to track elephant group movement
- Training, counselling and actively supporting the farmer-led local elephant patrols in areas of conflict
- Providing nature conservation lessons in the villages in and around the elephant habitat
- Documenting evidence of illegal forest activities such as poaching or illegal logging