The dog team completes its first peacekeeping contract in the famous Sumatra National Park Global Voices
Three meters up the jungle path, elephant riders sway slowly on their elephants — searching the mud and thick grass below for signs of wild elephants and hunting traps and ambushes.
Masroquin and Eddie Sotrisnow, two elephants in the Elephant Intervention Unit at Wai Kampas Park in Indonesia, emerged from the jungle after a three-hour patrol with their elephants, Karnangen and Karnangen.
“We love elephants and we don’t want them to die out,” Masrukin, 53, told Global Voices during a recent visit to Way Kambas National Park, one of Indonesia’s largest national parks.
Over the past decade, the Elephant Response Unit has deployed rapid response teams in the park and run awareness campaigns in villages to reduce human-elephant conflict, which has been fueled by the conversion of lowland forests to farmland, pitting farmers against elephants foraging in its former habitat.
Currently, in addition to its anti-human-elephant conflict activities, the Elephant Intervention Unit addresses other threats to the region’s biodiversity — from illegal hunting and game poaching to over-cutting of non-timber forest crops and indiscriminate forest fires.
“The approach of the Elephant Intervention Unit is that these wild elephants are taken away by tame elephants,” said Nazaruddin, winner of the 2018 Outstanding Elephant Award from Indonesian President Joko Widodo. Naturally, elephants trained to fight wild elephants have a good elephant mentality. However, it will not be possible to increase the number of wildlife if the rate of forest conversion remains high.”
He added: “We hope Faiale’s assistants can be empowered as workers in the ministry. We need auxiliary seals because the official seals are over 40 years old. They have to be renewed automatically, which is not easy.” It takes at least three years, Nazaruddin said, to become an elephant.
threatened with extinction
Way Kambas National Park covers 1,300 square kilometers of rainforest and coastal wetlands in Lampung Province on the southern tip of Sumatra. The park is home to more than 400 species of birds and 50 species of mammals, including the endangered Sumatran tiger, the Sumatran rhinoceros and the endangered Sumatran elephant.
As their habitats shrink, elephants often turn to agricultural land in search of food. As a result of the threat to their livelihoods, villagers have been known to capture and kill wild elephants, despite being protected under Indonesia’s Wildlife Act.
By 2011, the International Union for Conservation of Nature included the Sumatran elephant on its “red list” of endangered species. During the same year, the first of four Elephant Intervention Unit base camps was opened in Way Kambas National Park, which is now home to around 185-210 wild elephants.
Nazaruddin, whose love for elephants began 40 years ago when he cared for a cub that was rescued after it fell into a well, says dealing with human-elephant conflicts has evolved since the early 1980s. At the time, efforts like Operation Tata Liman were limited to driving wild elephants into protected areas of the national park and rarely worked to educate villagers about the role elephants play in a balanced ecosystem.
Since then, the Elephant Intervention Unit has been conducting regular patrols using tame elephants at the Elephant Training Center in Way Kambas National Park and recruiting young elephants from nearby villages. Much of their work still revolves around persuading wild elephants away from crops and villages, but now there is a huge awareness effort.
Efforts include training community groups on ways to reduce human-elephant conflict, building watchtowers and lookouts along park boundaries, making it easier to monitor and, if necessary, respond to the movements of wild elephants.
“The community has been educated and involved in the Elephant Intervention Unit,” said Nazaruddin, head of Way Kambas National Park Bongor District Division Two.
He also chairs the Indonesian Feale Society Symposium, an online forum created for the country’s more than 500 elephants.
Apart from the Elephant Intervention Unit, elephants are employed in elephant training centers, national parks and zoos. In Way Kambas National Park, Nazaruddin and 14 other elephants work in the park along with 32 helper elephants, most of whom are young men from protected area communities who receive training from the Elephant Intervention Unit.
Fireworks and lanterns
The Elephant Intervention Unit runs four camps in Way Kambas National Park, where 27 elephants and their elephants guard the park’s boundaries and work with local communities.
On a typical night, elephants or peasants can spend many hours on guard duty. When an elephant appears from the jungle, they use flashlights, spin fireballs made of coconuts and kerosene, and set off bamboo cannons or firecrackers to warn them.
Nizaruddin’s work often involves de-escalating incidents between humans and elephants.
Last month, he drove his truck 44 kilometers from his home in Raja Bhasa Lama to the northeastern village of Tanjung Tirtu, where he saw a farmer’s herd of wild elephants walking towards his rice and immediately alerted the Elephant Response Unit via a WhatsApp group chat.
Nazaruddin arrived an hour later and led the elephants into the forest with the farmer.
Tanjung Tirtu is one of nine villages in the national park’s safe areas where elephants ravage farmers’ fields in search of food. Nazaruddin, who recently gave a speech at the village’s town hall, says educating communities on how to safely deal with these experiences is a priority for the Elephant Intervention Unit.
The meeting with 30 residents was aimed at developing a joint plan to address the interaction between the elephants and the villagers. During the meeting, Surono, the village curator, said it was important for the community and forest protection authorities to work together.
Sufian, a member of the forest police partner community, told the meeting that more fireworks were needed to warn of elephants entering the country.
Muhammad Jazem Nasruddin, a member of the Elephant Intervention Unit, said the incidence of human-elephant conflicts in the area has decreased by 60 percent since 2011, along with a reduction in the number of damaged crops, thanks to community members working with forest police to remove the elephants.
Some of the rice paddies around Tanjung Tirtu border the jungle and often witness accidents between humans and elephants, said the leader of a local group of jungle farmers. Forest farmer groups have played major roles in social forestry programs across Indonesia since the 1970s, sometimes mediating disputes over forest use and local communities.
“We cannot ignore the ongoing conflict, so it is important for us to improve farmers’ knowledge about elephants and the proper way to deal with them when they enter rice fields and villages,” said Ferdous Armensieh of Y Nusantara Forest Farmers Group.
Advanced tracking technology
Technology also plays an important role in the activities of the Elephant Intervention Unit, including GPS devices to track the movements of wild elephants.
Nazaruddin said the location tracking system currently works with six wild elephants, and the Elephant Intervention Unit plans to acquire three additional devices in 2023.
“The tracking collars make it easier for us to track the movements of wild elephants, locate them and alert villagers,” said Nizaruddin. He added that they managed to track a large herd of 15 elephants and plan to track smaller groups in the future.
Muhammad Ali Imron, head of the Wildlife Laboratory at the Faculty of Forestry, Gadjah Mada University, said research is underway to use sound detection technology to locate wild elephants and alert communities to their presence.
Imron said the technology aims to detect the sounds of elephants in the forest and notify an environmental officer, for example via mobile phone, who can work with the community to reduce any potential conflict.
“We are using bioacoustic technology and artificial intelligence to track elephant sounds,” Imron said. He added that the sounds of elephants have specific characteristics due to which the human ear may not be able to hear them in some cases.
This article was written and prepared as part of the Media Skills Development Program offered by the Thomson Reuters Foundation. The author and publisher bear full responsibility for the content.