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How do you save Sumatra's biggest animal?

Dr Sunarto is an ecologist working for the World Wildlife Fund. Here he describes what a life devoted to conserving Sumatran elephants and their habitat is like.

Most forests in Java, especially in the central parts of the island, have almost totally been converted to agricultural lands, just like in the UK. Apparently, humans can so easily and quickly lose their attachment to wildlife and nature when the last individual of the animal and last stand of the natural forest have gone from an area.

Mural depicting animals that were formerly found in Java (Credit: Dr Sunarto)

I certainly had a different feeling when I explored the jungle of Sumatra. The presence of Sumatran tigers and Sumatran elephants, among other magnificent large mammals, is what make it very special.

Elephant habitats in Sumatra, however, largely overlap with resources needed locally and globally for economic development. This includes natural forests with their timber potential, minerals as a source of materials and energy, and land needed to cultivate various commodities.

One of the most interesting and rich lessons about elephants comes from the human-elephant conflict mitigation programmes. It is a complex issue, consisting of the elephant aspects and the human sides, and the interactions between them.

The large scale opening and conversion of forests where elephants live – as well as other animals such as tigers and orangutans – for things such as human settlements and agriculture mean human-wildlife conflicts have become some of the most pressing wildlife conservation issues in Sumatra.

Dr Sunarto studying elephant dung with one of his colleagues

Large scale systematic drive or capturing of wild elephants took place around the 1980s in areas where their presence was not tolerated due to conflict with man. More sporadic capturing and drive are still continuing to date.

Other than keeping them alive, it is hard to see the contribution of most elephant training centres to the conservation of elephants in the wild.

To keep the captured elephants alive, almost every province in Sumatra has at least one elephant training centre (ETC). These centres gather and attempt to tame or train the wild elephants, but other than keeping them alive, it is hard to see the contribution of most centres to the conservation of elephants in the wild.

This is where the “Elephant Flying Squads”, initiated in 2004 in Tesso Nilo, central Sumatra nicely combines the need to improve care for captive elephants and the need to help wild elephants and people living around them by mitigating human-elephant conflicts. This is especially needed in places where home range of wild elephants overlaps with plantations or settlements.

Lisa the elephant and mahout, Pak Eko, are just two of the stars of The Elephant Flying Squads

The “Flying Squads” represent one of the most popular approaches to mitigate human-elephant conflicts. Two mahouts take turns to look after each individual elephant in the squad. The concept of trained elephants helping prevent wild elephants from raiding crops and drive them back to their habitat, apparently appeals to the public.

A team from the Elephant Flying Squad patrols the jungle (Credit: Dr Sunarto)

More importantly, employing captive elephants in these flying squads also means improvements in their quality of life, especially when compared with elephants in typical elephant training centres.

Each squad typically consists of four adult elephants specifically trained for a variety of tasks related to human-elephant conflict mitigation. This includes patrolling, driving wild elephant back to their habitats, and awareness and education programmes designed for the public.

Since 2004, one unit of Elephant Flying Squad in Tesso Nilo has produced five elephant calves. The latest is named Rimbani. She was born on 1 June 2016. As with her older brothers, sisters and cousins, Rimbani will soon join the squad in patrolling. That way, Rimbani will help her fellow species to remain safe in the wild.

Over the long-term, when elephant degraded habitats can be reclaimed and restored, we hope that either her younger brothers or sisters, or perhaps her future offspring, will be able to return to their wild habitats and roam freely.

Some wild elephants in the Balai Raja region have GPS collars fitted to help monitor them and mitigate conflict with man (Credit: Dr Sunarto)

In the meantime, what we need to do is to keep improving our works in reducing conflicts, and protecting the elephants from being killed and their habitats from being further encroached. Albeit in smaller scales, we have demonstrated that it is possible to reduce conflicts and protect elephants from being killed.

When leaders are not committed, educated people can also change the world, including changing the leaders.

We also need to reach out the public and community, as well as political leaders to call for their greater attention. There are already many examples that when leaders make commitments, great things can happen. And when leaders are not committed, educated people can also change the world, including changing the leaders.

More importantly, we need to constantly inspire, engage and train young local leaders to get involved and take the lead in restoring their precious yet fragile wildlife and forests as natural capital crucial for the survival of current and future generations. Our programmes have shown an early success in this respect.

It has been one of my proudest moments to see several local students that were involved in our project to monitor elephants in Tesso Nilo are now continuing to support elephant conservation through a variety of works and studies they are doing. After all, the long-term success, or failure, of efforts to conserve wildlife will depend on the support and engagement of local people, whom the animals are sharing space with.