MILA PIDIE, Indonesia – On the west of the Indonesian island of Sumatra, in Aceh province, the coexistence between humans and wild elephants is fraught with conflict.
The opening up of new palm oil plantations, hunting – including poaching for ivory – and large-scale illegal logging are the main factors driving the increasingly-prevalent clashes between the region’s residents and their pachyderm neighbors.
But some groups are working to pacify this costly war: an epa-EFE photographer on Saturday accompanied members of the so-called “Elephant Patrol” – mahouts who ride on tamed elephants to keep their wild counterparts at bay in a non-lethal manner – as they patrolled the forests with the mission of helping the endangered animals survive and de-escalating the strife with locals.
The tamed pachyderms are trained to drive their wild cousins away from residential areas, pushing them back into the forest, whose lush thickets provide better protection against those who wish to do them harm. The result of this strategy is a win-win situation for both the tuskers and the local farmers who cannot afford to have their crops destroyed by the lumbering beasts.
The Elephant Patrol is a joint project between the Pidie District Conservation Response Unit (CRU) and the Aceh regional government’s Natural Resource Conservation Agency (BKSDA).
The CRUs have four stated main goals: mitigating human-elephant conflict, reducing wildlife crime activities in the elephants’ habitat through forest patrol and monitoring, raising awareness among local people of the importance of conserving elephants and their habitat and establishing community-based ecotourism to ensure the project’s long-term financial sustainability.
The BKSDA, meanwhile, has been fitting wild elephants with GPS collars and using satellite tracking to provide an early warning system for when the behemoths approach towns or settlements.
The elephants’ impending extinction is palpable across the country, but nowhere more so than in Aceh, where only 500 remain in the wild. Clashes in Aceh between elephants and humans are reportedly the highest of anywhere in Indonesia.
Wild Sumatran elephant numbers are falling across the archipelago, with current figures estimated at around 1,700, a sharp decline from the 5,000 individuals in the 1980s and 2,800 in the 1990s. The numbers have continued to disappear despite being put on the list of animals that are critically endangered or near extinction in 2012 by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
At least 170 elephants were killed between 2012 and December 2017, according to the Indonesian Elephant Conservation Forum (FKGI), although the real death toll is believed to be far higher.