The End of Aceh's Wild Elephants
Photographer: Hotli Simanjuntak
Across Aceh province on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, new plantations and a housing construction boom are threatening the natural environment, pitting humans against the already-critically endangered wild elephants in a fatal conflict which the native Sumatran pachyderm is certain to lose.
The elephants’ impending extinction is palpable across the country, but nowhere more so than in Aceh, where only 500 remain in the wild. Clashes in Aceh between elephants and humans are reportedly the highest of anywhere in the country.
Wild Sumatran elephant numbers are falling across the archipelago, with current figures estimated at around 1,700, a sharp decline from the 5,000 individuals in the 1980s and 2,800 in the 1990s. The numbers have continued to disappear despite being put on the list of animals that are Critically Endangered or near extinction in 2012 by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
At least 170 elephants were killed between 2012 and December 2017, according to the Indonesian Elephant Conservation Forum (FKGI), although the real death toll is believed to be far higher.
The opening up of new palm oil plantations, illegal hunting, including for ivory, and large scale illegal logging are the main causes for the increasingly prevalent clashes between humans and elephants in Aceh. The habitats for wild animals are decreasing rapidly, as humans and their crops and settlements expand even faster.
Efforts are being made by the Aceh government and the community to reduce conflicts with wild elephants, but so far with little success.
One of the measures is to locate a Conservation Response Unit (CRU) in areas prone to elephant conflict. The CRU consists of several tame elephants that are trained to drive and push wild pachyderms from residential areas.
Additionally, the Indonesian Aceh Natural Resource Conservation Agency has been using satellite tracking of wild elephant movements through GPS collars to provide an early warning system for when wild elephants approach towns or settlements.
The Aceh government is also encouraging driving wild elephants away in a non-lethal manner, by using fireworks and firecrackers, for example. Despite these efforts, many are killed by shooting or trapping with iron cable traps. There have also been reports of elephants being poisoned or electrocuted.
The decimation of the wild elephant population in Aceh shines a light on the stark reality of conservation. As with many other species, the main challenge to protect the elephants is less about bringing them into a new safety or captive zoo, and more about saving a rapidly receding natural environment that has been occupied and irreversibly changed by humans, leaving its native occupants without a home.