It was the middle of the night when the villagers sounded the alarm: a huge Sumatran elephant was raiding their rice fields, and they needed urgent help to drive it back to the forest.
Dodot – a veteran Indonesian elephant keeper trained to handle such emergencies – rushed to the scene, fearing villagers would take matters into their own hands if he didn’t get there in time.
“It was the king,” Dodot said of the hungry bull elephant that had strayed from the forest in south-east Sumatra in search of food.
“He’s not afraid of humans, or weapons. He owns the territory.”
It was the third such intrusion in a month.
Confrontations between elephants and humans can quickly turn violent in Sumatra where competition for space has intensified as the island’s forests have been rapidly cleared for timber and farming.
Nearly 70% of the Sumatran elephant’s habitat has been destroyed in a single generation, says conservation group WWF, driving them into ever-closer contact with humans.
Villagers have been trampled and killed by stampeding herds, but it is the elephants that have suffered most as their habitats have shrunk.
(Elephant patrols are helping to reduce conflicts between wild elephants and farmers in Sumatra).
In a span of 25 years, half of Sumatra’s wild elephants have been wiped out. The species was upgraded to critically endangered in 2012, with experts blaming the twin drivers of deforestation and conflict with humans.
Ivory poachers have long hunted bulls for their tusks but many elephants are killed simply for trespassing on land.
Keeping the peace between elephants and humans is a round-the-clock job for rangers like Dodot, who, like many Indonesians, goes by just one name.
He is assigned to one of three specialist elephant response units strategically located at hotspots around Way Kambas National Park where human settlements border a swathe of lowland forest which is home to an estimated 250 wild Sumatran elephants.
At Margahayu station, half a dozen rangers man their remote forest camp year round, rotating four days on, two days off.
They cook their own food, maintain canals and fences and, most importantly, patrol the borders with a squad of six captive elephants under their command.
These elephants are vital to the team’s success. Atop patrol elephants, rangers can keep track of the wild, nomadic herds as they roam the 1,300 sq km of dense forest.
The patrol elephants – trained by the keepers, or mahouts, who live alongside them – are skilled at picking up the trail of their wild kin, said Eko Arianto, a forest policeman posted with the Margahayu response unit.
“When we spot wild elephants, we inform the community and our teams on the outside, to be on the lookout,” he said. “That way, they can be ready to turn them back.”
It doesn’t always go to plan. Villagers killed an elephant in 2012, Arianto said, while angry farmers have been known to use fire, poison and beehives to drive away intruders.
Dominant males are solitary and harder for the rangers to track, emerging suddenly from the forest to raid fields before vanishing for weeks on end, Arianto said.
(A mahout preparing to place a chair on an elephant to transport tourists at Lak Lake in Vietnam).
A single incident can strain hard-earned trust between rangers and local communities who view elephants as a threat to their livelihoods and blame park authorities when they run amok.
The response units recruit locals to thaw suspicion and foster a sense of joint responsibility for the future of the iconic species.
“We are striving to find ways people can co-exist with the elephants,” Arianto said. “If the community feels involved, then they will help protect them. These elephants not only belong to us, but to everyone.”
Their diplomacy has paid off. Rangers estimate the frequency of clashes has dropped by up to 80% since they began patrolling the area in 2015.
Farmers – once so fearful of rampaging elephants they slept in their fields at night – were now reporting their first undisturbed harvests in years, Dodot said.
“Before we were here they were constantly on guard. Now they stay at home to sleep,” he said.
(Willem Schaftenaar, a Dutch vet from Rotterdam Zoo who volunteers for the Animals Asia foundation, playing with a one-year-old elephant at the Dak Lak Elephant Conservation Centre, Vietnam).
The patrols also locate and disable traps laid by poachers, disrupting lucrative criminal networks trading in exotic species.
It is a dangerous business. Last year, a beloved patrol elephant from a separate Sumatran unit was found dead at his station, his tusks hacked off. But those on the frontline are not deterred.
There’s plans to expand patrols next year to a fourth outpost at a trouble-prone section of Way Kambas, Arianto said, and talk of acquiring a drone for aerial tracking.
Junaidi, a 23-year-old trainee ranger, uses GPS technology to map the position of wild herds, but in the jungle he relies on traditional skills passed down by experienced mahouts.
Following dung trails and crushed vegetation, the young recruit wanders deeper into the forest until he spots three elephants, almost camouflaged in the undergrowth, grazing silently.
“If the next generation doesn’t care for them, what does their future hold?” Junaidi said. – AFP
(This male elephant was found dead last Christmas Eve in Assam, north-east India. It was believed to have been electrocuted).
Ed’s note: Human-elephant conflict happens elsewhere in Asia, too. For example, late last year, an elephant was believed to have been electrocuted and found dead in north-eastern India (Nortomgoan village, some 140km east of Guwahati, Assam state).
In Vietnam, elephants used to roam freely in the central highlands of Dak Lak, mingling with potential mates. But human settlements have cut off once-popular breeding circuits.
Now there are fewer than 100 elephants left in the wild and about 80 in captivity, mostly used to ferry tourists around the leafy forests of Vietnam’s central highlands.