The Sumatran elephant, a majestic species native to Indonesia, is considered critically endangered, due to habitat encroachment, illegal logging and land degradation.
According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), there are only between 2,400 and 2,800 Sumatran elephants left in the world, and only about 100 of them in Sumatra. This has prompted private sector companies such as Riau Andalan Pulp and Paper (RAPP), the operating arm of the April Group, a leading manufacturer of fiber, pulp and paper, to step in to help protect these animals.
The April Group created the Elephant Flying Squad on its Ukui Estate in Pelalawan, Riau, in 2006. The estate now has six elephants that patrol the forest and help guide wild elephants away from inhabited areas. The Ukui Estate is a key habitat for wild elephants in Sumatra – where they live and breed.
The Elephant Flying Squad is typically divided into two teams, one to patrol the forests and the other specialized to guide wild elephants away from settlements.
Sarmin is one of nine mahouts, or elephant trainers, in the Elephant Flying Squad who has dedicated his life to reducing conflict between wild elephants and humans on the estate.
"When I started with the flying squad, I was given responsibilities to care for the elephants, to patrol the area and to protect the wildlife," Sarmin said.
He originally worked at Way Kambas National Park in Lampung Province, helping to feed elephants. After a while, he grew an interest and wanted to handle the elephants directly.
"One of the handlers there asked if I was mentally ready to handle elephants. I wouldn't know unless I tried, so I did," he said.
Sarmin says each elephant has a unique character. While the young ones are playful and the adult females are helpful, the males tend to be aggressive.
"The elephant behind me is Ika, a female, and the one in the hangar is Adei, a male. He is known to have a quick temper, he is so sensitive. If anyone comes near him, he will charge. Not every mahout can get along with Adei," Sarmin said.
The Elephant Flying Squad was formed to mitigate human-wild elephant conflict, as wandering wild elephants may stumble into settlements several times a year.
"We manage conflict prevention together with the community, but we are the ones who set examples and give instructions. To drive the wild elephants back to their habitat, we need to follow orders from one person," he said.
When asked about what it takes to care for the elephants, he said, "we need to grow our love for them, just like we love our own children. We miss the elephants in the same way we miss our kids. My commitment is to protect and save Sumatran elephants for our future generations."
Saving the Endangered Species
The April Group has worked closely with the WWF to reduce elephant deaths in Sumatra, which decline to only four in 2016 from 10 the year before.
In 1994, before the Elephant Flying Squad was formed, the national government handed part of the responsibility for wildlife and forest conservation to public companies, based on a regulation that mandated companies in the forestry and farming industry to care for endangered wildlife, including elephants.
In the same year, the April Group and RAPP adopted four elephants from the Gajah Sebanga Conservation Center, run by the Lampung provincial government.
The largest of the bunch was a 31-year-old male called Adei. There was also Ika and Meri, two females of the same age as Adei. The youngest was Mira, a 30-year-old female.
"This was all about saving endangered wildlife. That was our goal then, it is still our goal now," said Putra Nicaragua, environment department coordinator at RAPP.
The company employs nine trainers to care for the elephants and routinely brings in veterinarians to check on the elephants' health.
The number of elephants has since increased in RAPP's 3,000-hectare concession. In 2009, Meri gave birth to a female calf named Carmen, and two years later Mira gave birth to a male calf named Raja Arman.
"Our main priority is to see them grow healthy and breed to replenish their numbers, while actively preventing conflict with humans. This is our way of helping to preserve these elephants," Putra said.