Elephants in Indonesia Attack Humans as Deforestation Threatens Habitat

by Diana Parker / Mongabay

Photo: Rhett A. Butler

Photo: Rhett A. Butler

It was near dawn on Jan. 4 when a critically endangered Sumatran elephant (Elephas maximus sumatranus) destroyed a small shack near a plantation in Indonesia’s Aceh province, killing a local farmer from West Aceh district and injuring his 13-year-old son. Yusmani, 59, was trampled to death while his son, Reverendi, escaped with a broken leg.

Less than one month later on Feb. 2, another Aceh farmer, Syahril, was returning home from his plantation near the border of Bireuen district, when he encountered five wild elephants on the road.

A large male elephant reportedly blocked his path then began butting Syahril’s motorbike, eventually pushing Syahril off the bike before heading back into the forest with the rest of the herd. Syahril was taken to the hospital to be treated for his injuries after being rescued by residents of a nearby village.

There may be as many as 500 elephants left in Aceh, nearly one-fifth of the total Sumatran elephant population. The province still contains extensive forest cover compared to other areas in Sumatra, however deforestation and increased human activity in elephant habitats have led to a rise in encounters between elephants and local communities, often with tragic consequences.

Last year, eight elephants died in Aceh, and one person was killed and another injured in elephant attacks. Another 14 elephants were found dead in 2012, many believed to have been poisoned on palm oil plantations. In July, graphic photographs of one elephant killed in Aceh Jaya district – a 22-year-old male elephant known as “Papa Genk” who was found with his eyes, trunk and tusks removed – went viral, sparking outrage among Twitter and Facebook users in Indonesia who called on the government to investigate the case and hold the killers responsible.

However, residents of Ranto Sabon village, where Genk was found, said they had no choice but to kill the animal – despite the fact that killing elephants is illegal under Indonesian law – claiming Genk repeatedly caused problems in the village and threatened residents’ livelihoods by destroying crops.

This year, one elephant has died so far in Aceh, killed by an electric fence in Southeast Aceh district on Jan. 21. Residents removed the animal’s tusks before burying the carcass, though the tusks were later confiscated by police who are currently investigating the case.

According to Wahdi Azmi of the Indonesian Elephant Conservation Forum (FKGI), these conflicts occur because the government “ignores the existence of elephants” as part of the ecosystems where human activities take place.

Nearly all of Aceh’s elephants – around 80 percent – live outside of protected forests and conservation areas, he said, and their habitat is shrinking as forests are opened for plantations, road construction, and mining.

“This is aggravated by an increase in illegal activities around forest areas and weak law enforcement,” Wahdi told Mongabay-Indonesia.

More deforestation on the agenda

Trained elephants patrolling Aceh BKSDA repel wild elephants that have been in conflict with local farmers in Bireuen. Photo: Chik Rini.

Trained elephants patrolling Aceh BKSDA repel wild elephants that have been in conflict with local farmers in Bireuen. Photo: Chik Rini.

Meanwhile, a new government regulation is set to open the door for development in large swathes of protected forests in the province – further reducing the habitats of elephants and other endangered species in Aceh, including rhinos, tigers and orangutans.

On Dec. 27, Aceh’s local legislative body passed a controversial piece of legislation that would re-zone sections of protected forest in Aceh for mining, plantation development and other uses.

The Aceh Regional Spatial Plan (RTRWA), which is currently awaiting approval from the central government, would re-zone approximately 146,000 hectares (360,800 acres) of forest, including nearly 80,000 hectares of protected forests and conservation areas that would be zoned for development as “areal penggunaan lain” (APL), or land designated for “other uses” falling outside the forest estate.

However, the consequences of the new spatial plan could extend far beyond these re-zoned forests. The plan also removes any mention of the Leuser Ecosystem – a tropical forest area covering 2.6 million hectares, including 2.2 million hectares in Aceh.

The Leuser Ecosystem has been designated as a “national strategic area” for conservation, meaning that within the 2.6-million hectare ecosystem, even land zoned as production forest or APL cannot be legally developed.

By failing to mention Leuser in its spatial plan, activists fear the Aceh government is effectively releasing all the land within the ecosystem that is not officially zoned as a national park or a protected forest. This means that much of the lowland forest in the ecosystem – the primary habitat for Sumatran elephants – will be up for grabs for plantation and mining developers.

Activists have called on the central government to reject the plan unless it is revised to include protection for the Leuser Ecosystem, explaining that a failure to do so would violate previous legal commitments by the province.

“The spatial plan clearly breaches Aceh Governance law No. 11/2006,” Acehnese environmental lawyer Kamaruddin said in a statement released by the Orangutan Foundation on Jan. 19, referring to a law born out of a 2005 peace agreement between Free Aceh Movement (GAM) rebels and the Indonesian government.

The law, which gave Aceh greater governing autonomy and helped bring an end to a decades-long conflict in the region, also required the provincial government to protect the Leuser Ecosystem.

“This law obligates Aceh’s government to protect the Leuser Ecosystem and the fact that the current spatial plan doesn’t even acknowledge its existence opens up all sorts of legal ramifications if it is signed into law.”

If the spatial plan is approved, the potential loss of lowland forests will likely lead to even more widespread conflict between elephants and local communities, and may threaten the very existence of Sumatran elephants in Aceh.

“Over the next five years, if the plan is approved, the conflicts will escalate dramatically,” Ian Singleton, conservation director at the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program, told Mongabay-Indonesia on Feb. 12.

“Then, within five years, the elephants will be gone. I’m quite confident of that.”

Can the problem be solved?

Rainforest in Aceh. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Rainforest in Aceh. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

While the current spatial plan would likely lead to an increase in conflicts with elephants, Singleton said there are steps the government can take to help reduce conflicts – namely reforesting key areas where the elephants are known to travel.

At the moment, elephant killings happen because local communities in these areas see few other options to solve the problem. “The elephants will come through, every year, and 20 elephants coming through will do a lot of damage,” Singleton explained.

“So at first, the community will try to do the right thing. Someone will talk to the village head, who will talk to the Camat [subdistrict head], who will eventually talk to someone who doesn’t really know what to do,” he said.

“And by then, the elephants will have gone back into the forest and they will be safe again for a while,” he added. “But then they come back the next year, and the people kill them.”

“This already happens, all the time,” Singleton said. “But as more land is opened for roads, timber, plantation and mining concessions, it will increase considerably.”

However, by talking to experts who understand the elephant ranges, then identifying, reclaiming and reforesting the land where they frequently travel, conflicts could be reduced, Singleton said. This would protect communities from potentially deadly encounters and reduce crop destruction and other property damage, which would in turn keep frustrated communities from resorting to poaching.

However, if current development patterns continue, the problem will likely continue to get worst. In Buloh village, where Yusmani was killed and his son was injured earlier this year, community members said the plantation where the attack took place used to be covered by forest and was part of a track used by elephants. But after a coal mine opened in the area the forest was cleared.

“Now it’s been deforested,” Ibnu, a Buloh resident, said, as quoted by the Jakarta Globe on Jan. 5. “The elephants’ trail has become a track for cars and trucks carrying coal from the mine.”

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