On two consecutive days this week, two Sumatran elephants were found dead – one on an oil palm plantation in North Sumatra and one on farmland in the Gayo Lues Regency in Aceh.
The first – a female, aged about 12 – was found on Tuesday, partly submerged in a river on an oil palm plantation owned by the Indonesian company PT Perkebunan Inti Sawit Subur (PISS). The plantation is adjacent to the Gunung Leuser National Park.
The cause of death has yet to be established.
The second elephant was found on Wednesday on farmland in the Pining district, next to the Gunung Leuser forest. The wildlife rangers who found the elephant said that a baby elephant was still pacing around the body.
Initial reports stated that the elephant found dead in Aceh was a female, but the Aceh Natural Resources Conservation Agency (BKSDA) said today that it was a male, and his tusks were removed. It is believed that the elephant died three or four days before being found, and was aged about 25.
Photos provided by the Aceh BKSDA.
The NGO Forest, Nature and Environment Aceh (HAkA) said: “The cause of death is being investigated, but appears to be poisoning. Today the authorities will recover the body for further investigations and evacuate the orphaned baby elephant.”
HAkA added: “This is a despicable act and a tragedy. Where are elephants supposed to go when their ancient migration paths are converted to palm oil monocultures?”
The NGO says that, because of mass deforestation, elephants have been reduced to pests. “It is heartbreaking to see this confused baby beside a mutilated body; to know what that baby had to witness.
“We want all parties to work together to arrest the perpetrators.”
Also on Wednesday, a team from the Medan-based Orangutan Information Centre (OIC), the North Sumatra BKSDA, and the Gunung National Park Authority struggled for about four hours to haul the body of the elephant found on Tuesday to a suitable area to conduct a necropsy (dissection) and obtain samples for laboratory testing.
After trying unsuccessfully to move the body across difficult terrain using two trucks and winches, the OIC and BKSDA staff were eventually able to use a tractor loaned to them by the palm oil company.
The OIC vet, Ricko Laino Jaya, helped by Suhendra from the OIC’s Human Orangutan Conflict Response Unit (HOCRU), had to literally go inside the elephant’s huge, 2.5-tonne carcass to obtain samples. The vet was dwarfed by the animal and her internal organs, and the dissection took about three hours.
A vet from the Veterinary Society for Sumatran Wildlife Conservation (Vesswic) was in attendance, recording data.
There were no signs of major injury to the elephant: no bullet holes, and only one small cut on one leg. There were no visible signs of poisoning, but the vets estimate that the elephant had already been dead for more than 48 hours so such indications would be difficult to see in the field.
Ricko Jaya spoke about the immensity of Wednesday’s task. About thirty people were involved in moving the elephant and digging a grave for the animal.
“We think the elephant may have been poisoned, but are waiting for blood tests and an examination of the liver to see if this was, in fact, the cause of death,” said the director of the OIC, Panut Hadisiswoyo (pictured left). He expects that it will take at least a week, perhaps two, to get the lab results.
“It is so tragic that this has happened,” Hadisiswoyo said. “These deaths can be prevented if we protect the forest properly.”
Hadisiswoyo says plantation workers reported seeing a baby elephant near to the body. “When we got there we couldn’t see it, but we could see baby-elephant dung.
“That baby elephant must now be extremely traumatised, but rangers followed what we think were his footprints and it looks like he was able to join a group.”
Hadisiswoyo says he is furious that this latest elephant death has occurred. He says he warned the palm oil company last December that they needed to take action to prevent human-wildlife conflict as elephants were roaming near to the plantation.
The head of the North Sumatra BKSDA, Hotmauli Sianturi, said today (Friday) that she suspected that the elephant had been poisoned, but would wait for the lab results to have confirmation of the cause of death.
She said she wanted the permit for the PT PISS concession to be revoked and some of the plantation area to be restored for elephant habitat.
In November last year an infant elephant was severely injured in a snare, and two other elephants were injured by snares earlier in the year.
“The snares on the plantation are huge,” Hadisiswoyo said. “They are clearly intended to catch mammals.”
Hadisiswoyo has urged the plantation owners to put aside an area of their land for elephant habitat. The OIC even offered to do the restoration of the area.
“They have a 300-hectare area, where elephants are found, that is virtually abandoned. If they set that aside for the elephants, they would not come onto the plantation, and the area could be monitored.”
Hadisiswoyo has himself experienced damage to areas of the forest the OIC has restored in North Sumatra.
“It’s inevitable that elephants will come onto their land because the plantation was the elephants’ forest, which the company then appropriated.
“It’s very hard to have a mitigation plan, but the company needs to do all it can to prevent human-wildlife conflict.”
Hadisiswoyo says that about 10,000 hectares of the Gunung Leuser National Park have been encroached upon for plantations.
“This disturbs the elephants’ movement and they get lost. They see the area as their home range and will go there no matter what.”
Gunung Leuser is one of three national parks that lie within the Tropical Rainforest Heritage of Sumatra (TRHS) site, which has been on UNESCO’s “List of World Heritage in Danger’’ since 2011 because of the ongoing destruction of its ecosystem.
A large part of the TRHS site lies within the Leuser Ecosystem, an area of tropical lowland rainforest that straddles the provinces of Aceh and North Sumatra and is the last place on Earth where orangutans, rhinos, tigers, and elephants can be found living together in the wild.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has identified Leuser as one of the world’s “irreplaceable protected areas”. It is home to the densest populations of orangutans anywhere in the world.
HAkA has called for more elephant patrol units around the Leuser Ecosystem.
The government gives concessions to palm oil companies without thinking about management of the landscape, Hadisiswoyo says.
“The government may see an area as being outside of the protected forest, but they need to remember that it is still part of the elephants’ home range, so there is conflict.
“Tigers, elephants, and orangutans of course don’t know anything about the land’s status. They just see the land as their forest.”
Ricko Jaya points out that the conflict between humans and elephants has been going on in Sumatra for years.
“It is inevitable that there will be victims, either elephants or humans. We need to find a way of managing this conflict.”
A dead Sumatran elephant discovered in 2012. Poisoning was suspected. Photograph: Hotli Simanjuntak/EPA.
Dozens of Sumatran elephants have been killed in recent years. They are not only targeted by poachers; they are also killed by local villagers who regard them as pests that destroy their plantations.
As the rainforest habitat of elephants and orangutans is destroyed to make way for oil palm plantations, the animals increasingly stray into populated areas to try and find food. Some elephants are poisoned by fruit laced with cyanide.
In January this year, an elephant was found shot dead on an oil palm plantation owned by the company PT Dwi in East Aceh. Its tusks had been taken by poachers. A young elephant was also shot in the same area, but survived.
The BKSDA says that, from 2012 to 2017, 44 Sumatran elephants were found dead in Aceh. The agency says the highest rate of elephant deaths in Aceh occurred in 2015, when the number reached 12.
In 2012, in Aceh, five elephants were found dead. Ten were found dead in 2013, 11 in 2014, four in 2016, and two so far in 2017.
The WWF says that, in 2012, no fewer than 29 elephants were found dead in the three provinces of Riau, Aceh, and Lampung.
In 2013, the WWF reported that more than one hundred Sumatran elephants had been found dead in Riau since 2004.
It is estimated that, since 2012, on the island of Sumatra as a whole, at least 200 elephants have been killed out of a population of about 1,700.
In July 2012, horrific photographs of one elephant killed in Aceh Jaya district – a 22-year-old male known as “Papa Genk” (The Boss) who was found with his eyes, trunk, and tusks removed – went viral.
There was widespread outrage over the atrocity and the government was deluged with calls to investigate the case and hold the killers to account.
In one of the cases in 2015 (in April), a male Sumatran elephant, believed to be about twenty years old, was found dead and mutilated in in the Karang Hampa village in the West Aceh district. The animal had its tusks removed and appeared to have gunshot wounds.
There are estimated to be as few as 400 wild elephants now left in Aceh.
In February 2015, the remains of seven poisoned Sumatran elephants – an adult female, five male teenagers, and a male calf – were found just outside the Tesso Nilo national park. It was believed that they died five months earlier.
Also in February 2015, police in Riau province arrested eight members of a poaching syndicate and confiscated tusks worth more than 30,000 US$ after the arrest of a local tusks buyer. The group admitted killing at least six elephants in Riau and the neighbouring Jambi province.
In September 2015, a 34-year-old tame Sumatran elephant called Yongi, who went on jungle patrols with forest rangers, was killed for its tusks.
Yongki was found dead, with his tusks hacked off, close to the camp where he lived in the Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park. He was believed to have been poisoned. Yongki’s killing also sparked a storm of protest.
The forest patrols help to mitigate human-elephant conflict and combat poaching and illegal logging.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature has classified the Sumatran elephant as “critically endangered”. There are estimated to be between 2,400 and 2,800 of the animals remaining in the wild – a 50 percent drop in numbers since 1985.
The WWF says the animals face extinction in less than 30 years unless the destruction of their habitat is halted.
Rampant expansion of plantations and the mining industry has destroyed nearly 70 percent of the elephants’ forest habitat over the past 25 years, according to the WWF.
Ironically, the discovery of the most recent elephant deaths in Sumatra occurred while representatives from Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Nepal, and Vietnam were gathered for the three-day Asian Elephant Range States Meeting (AsERSM) in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, which ended yesterday (Thursday).
In The Jakarta Declaration for Asian Elephant Conservation issued yesterday, the delegates declared a common goal to “conserve the Asian elephant in all Asian elephant range states”.
They said they recognised that the Asian elephant, which was a “seriously endangered species”, faced a challenging future with the loss of its habitat, fragmented populations, high levels of human-elephant conflict, and poaching, “as well as other factors that have resulted in serious population decline in most of the range states”.
The delegates said there were ten times fewer Asian elephants than African elephants, and some Asian elephant range states faced the loss of their elephant populations.
Photo of Panut Hadisiswoyo is by Christy Frank.
This article has been updated.
The Aceh BKSD has confirmed that the elephant found last Wednesday on farmland in the Pining district was poisoned.
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