Pelalawan, Riau. The Sumatran elephant, a majestic species that feeds on various plants as well as depositing seeds wherever they set foot, is considered to be critically endangered. Environmentalists believe half of its population has been lost in a generation, a worrying decline that is largely attributable to habitat loss and human-elephant conflict.
According to the World Widelife Fund (WWF), Indonesia's Sumatra Island, where the Asian elephant resides, has experienced one of the highest rates of deforestation globally. This has threatened the extinction of the world’s largest land mammal in many areas.
WWF, a non-governmental organisation focusing on wildlife conservation and endangered species noted in a report that over two-thirds of Sumatra’s natural lowland forest has been cleared over the past 25 years, with nearly 70 percent of the elephant’s habitat destroyed.
The good news, according to WWF's report is that elephant deaths in the province - that is also home to large pulp and paper and palm oil company plantations - has declined to four in 2016 from 10 in the previous year. The NGO believes the four elephant deaths were sadly due to human-animal conflict.
Though such conflicts still occur, efforts by private companies, including Riau Andalan Pulp and Paper, the operations arm of Asia Pacific Resources International Holdings Limited (APRIL Group), to mitigate the human-wildlife conflict are starting to make a difference.
RAPP initiated a unique project called the Elephant Flying Squad to attempt to mitigate human-wildlife conflict through an approach recommended by WWF as well as the Natural Resource Conservation Agency (BKSDA) of Riau.
A program to address elephant deaths was introduced in 2004 in Pelalawan, Riau, made up of four elephants who are taken care of by mahouts or elephant trainers, a medical team and support crew.
BKSDA, Tesso Nilo National Park (TNTN), WWF, as well palm oil company Indosawit Subur threw their support behind the program.
“APRIL Group’s Flying Squad was formed to provide a quick response to conflicts between wild elephants and the community,” said Sarmin, one of the Squad’s elephant handlers or mahouts.
Today, there are a total of nine mahouts in the Flying Squad who originally came from the Elephant Training Center (PLG) of Minas in Riau and Way Kambas in Lampung.
Local residents alert the Flying Squad if an elephant is spotted close by the village area. The team will immediately go to the location and use a range of tactics to herd the giant animal away from the residential area.
“The Flying Squad will respond and identify how big the herd is,” said Didik Purwanto, RAPP’s deputy assistant of forest protection. “Along with the residents, we will herd them towards a point, often the protected riparian area where elephants like to gather.”
Patrols around company concession areas are conducted twice a week to monitor the movement of wild elephants.
These methods have proven effective in reducing conflicts, says Sarmin. “Local residents are happy with the Flying Squad’s presence, which is saving elephant’s lives as well as protecting community cultivation.
Besides solving conflicts, the existence of the Flying Squad also helps conserve this critically endangered species, with the Squad successfully welcoming two healthy calves.
The Flying Squad’s elephants consist of male Adei (31), female Ika (31), Meri (31) who is mother to female Carmen (8) and Mira (30) who is the mother to male Raja Arman (6).
“We have a responsibility to take care of them. If they are attacked by wild elephants and get injured, we must respond. Our success can also be measured in breeding two [elephants],” said Didik.
The mahouts’ constant affection and dedication ensures that the elephants never slip into a critical condition but remain in a healthy state, according to BKSDA six-monthly check-ups.
“The interaction between mahouts and elephants begins in the morning, starting with bathing, feeding and health check-ups, followed by [and] playing until the afternoon,” Didik said.
Each elephant consumes 150 to 400 kilograms of food daily. They are fed tree trunks of rattan and breadfruit, as well as fruits including watermelon, banana, pineapple and tomatoes. Once a week, they are also given a pudding which is a mix of brown sugar, cassava, corn, bran and salt mineral to boost their energy.
“The dietary standard is the same for all Flying Squads, however, we modify the fruit to increase their Hb [hemoglobin] and add natural vitamins,” Didik said, adding that his camp is considered well-fed compared to the other camps.