Elephants & the Forest
Elephants play many important biological roles within forests, helping keep them healthy and diverse and are known as a keystone species. They create a network of trails through the forest, maintaining clearings for particular plants and animals that need more space and light. They help with nutrient cycling, not least as a result of producing on average 16-18 large dung piles per day!
They play a major role as seed dispersers, helping forest regeneration and they even create habitats for other animals in their footprints. But the Sumatran elephant population is in trouble – its numbers have declined by 50 percent since 1985, and today only 2,400 to 2,800 remain in the wild. Scientists predict that the species may disappear within the next 30 years if current trends continue.
Their decline is primarily a result of some of the fastest rates of deforestation across Asia, leaving only 29 percent of the island still habitable for the elephants and leaving them in isolated patches close to humans. The relationship is tense and all-out war between human and elephant is becoming a regular occurrence, often ending in the loss of lives to both humans and elephants.
But an innovative initiative trains rehabilitated "trouble" elephants as part of an "Elephant Flying Squad" to drive the wild elephants back into the forest and away from farmers and the crops they are raiding. The project has been a success, but the bigger issues of deforestation at a national level still need addressing if this giant gardener of the forest is to persist in Sumatra.
The Human-Elephant War
About 70 percent of Sumatran elephant habitat has been destroyed in one single generation, and as their home disappears, the elephants are squeezed into smaller and smaller patches of isolated forest. These fragments of forest are often not large enough to support the number of elephants living within them and they bring the elephants into much closer proximity with human settlements and development. Running out of forest space and seeking food, the elephants come crashing out of the forest and inevitably into contact with humans much more regularly than ever before — the results can be disastrous.
They raid crops, trample homes and sometimes even hurt or kill people. It’s all-out war. The locals are scared and desperate and often retaliate by poisoning and killing the elephants responsible for the damage. Between 2000 and 2007, 42 people and 100 elephants were killed in Sumatra due to conflicts between humans and elephants. This escalation of human-elephant conflict has led to public protests in many places, to regular and critical press coverage, and to some hostility towards conservation agencies.
Human and Elephant Conflict in Sumatra In Sumatra, crop raiding fuels the battle between man and elephant.
The Flying Squad
How to Be a Mahout
The mahouts have a very intimate and close relationship with their elephants. They take huge pride in their job as elephant carers and trainers and will always put the elephant before themselves.
How to Be a Mahout A mahout describes her life with elephants.
The Elephant Flying Squad
In the 1980s the Indonesian government began capturing elephants caught up in human-elephant conflict on Sumatra as an alternative to culling and put them into elephant training centers to keep them out of trouble. Initially they were trained by skilled mahouts for riding and for simple logging work. These training camps have now become Elephant Conservation Centers. The capture of wild elephants was discontinued in 1999.
The Elephant Flying Squad is a bold new plan that aims to train these ex-"problem" elephants to help protect their wild cousins and to limit the amount of human-elephant conflict in the future. The biggest, strongest and healthiest elephants are picked out of the Conservation Center and paired with a mahout who will train them to patrol the human-elephant boundary line and chase the wild elephants back into the forest when they come too close to human settlements and crop fields. It’s a strange mix of the wild meeting the human world, protected and policed via an ancient relationship with a species. Each Elephant Flying Squad will have four elephants, eight mahouts and one leader who will work together to form the team.
The Chosen Elephants:
Rahman is Arabic for compassionate. He is the natural leader of the group. He is 33 years old and a huge Asian elephant.
Indro has a taste for rice wine and brownies.
Ria is a loyal and loving elephant who particularly enjoys bath time.
Lisa is not keen on dogs.
Amazingly there are 3 baby elephants who have now joined the squad — a result of the female elephants being sent into the forest to placate the wild males! Tesso, Nella and tiny Imbo are war babies!
Bigger Picture Solutions
Both the Sumatran elephant and the tropical lowland forests it lives in are extremely threatened. Finding solutions that work for everyone, including the elephants, the local farmers and the economy of Indonesia itself is difficult. But if we want to save these incredibly important forests then we must look at solutions not just on local scales, but on big global scales. Here are some of the solutions:
- Winning hearts and minds of the locals – The localized Elephant Flying Squads can help prevent human-elephant conflict in small pockets across Sumatra. This is a great start and highly important in getting the locals on side and changing their negative attitudes toward the elephants.
- Help elephant behavior — Creating corridors to connect the fragmented patches of forest will allow elephants to move around in the large spaces they need, and will help prevent them coming out of the forest and into human settlements.
- Global protection of habitat — Ultimately, elephants need large tracts of forest to survive, and in turn, they play an important role in helping keep that forest healthy. In order to completely prevent human-elephant conflict and ultimately protect the Sumatran elephant as a species, we must stop deforestation and protect forests such as those in Indonesia.