Sumatran elephants cornered by oil palm industry deforestation | News | Eco-Enterprise
Saleh Kadri, a young farmer from Leubok Pusaka village in North Aceh district, was on his way to his plantation when he spotted eight elephants on the riverbank. From his canoe, he recorded a video with his phone. The animals looked amazed. One seemed to stare at Saleh’s moving canoe, while the others turned to flee. “Elephants! Elephants! Saleh and his friends screamed until all the animals disappeared behind the trees.
“They were trapped,” said Nurdin, a conservation officer from North Aceh, a district near the northern tip of the Indonesian island of Sumatra. The herd, he told Mongabay, had nowhere to go. They were unable to cross the river and they were unable to return to the forest due to clearing activities in the opposite direction in the nearby village of Cot Girek.
A few days later, the herd finally managed to escape during a downpour. But the story did not end there. When they reached Cot Girek, the elephants found food in the villagers’ farms and destroyed four houses. The villagers were not happy.
In recent years, there has been massive land clearing in North Aceh, which lies along the east coast of Sumatra in Aceh Province. Despite the district’s enforcement of a moratorium on issuing new permits for oil palm plantations, conservationists report ongoing deforestation on the ground.
The North Aceh government has granted clearing permits to small oil palm farms, some of which are believed to be controlled by powerful people in the region. This change in land use, say conservationists, has further fragmented the habitat of Sumatran elephants. “If we don’t take this issue seriously, I think the animals will go extinct soon,” Nurdin said.
According to the latest population assessment by the Indonesian Forum for Elephant Conservation, known by its Indonesian acronym FKGI, Aceh is home to 42% of Sumatran elephants (Elephas maximus sumatranus) thought to stay in the country.
More than 85% of Sumatran elephants live outside conservation areas.
Wahdi Azmi, Ecologist, Conservation Response Unit Aceh
The rest of the estimated population 924–1,359 struggle to survive in oil palm and pulpwood concessions in Riau and Jambi provinces, while a few are found in national parks in Lampung province. “Aceh is our [best] hope,” said Wahdi Azmi, an environmentalist who leads RAW Aceh, a local conservation group. Across the province, there are still 392 to 456 elephants left, according to the latest assessment, doing their best to survive in a rapidly changing environment.
“More than 85% of Sumatran elephants live outside conservation areas,” Azmi said. In Aceh, four to five human-elephant conflicts are reported every day, he added. In June, the intensity of the conflict escalated in North Aceh, where much of the land was cleared for oil palm.
Live on the front line
In Cot Girek, a loud bang from a PVC air cannon woke Junaidi up at 2 a.m. The 41-year-old farmer leads the village elephant patrol team. Hearing the noise, he knew it was a sign that wild elephants were coming.
“Shoot the cannon five times if you find wild elephants around your house” – this is how villagers were urged to communicate with others who may live miles away with poor cell service. Junaidi only heard one shot that night, but as a patrol leader he had to get up and investigate despite the rain. In the dark, he drove ten kilometers on muddy roads around the village to check the situation.
Since early June, Junaidi and other villagers in Cot Girek and Leubok Pusaka have been staying up at night. Within a month, four wooden huts were reportedly destroyed by elephants.
Asnawi, a small-scale oil palm farmer who lives 3 km (nearly 2 mi) from Junaidi’s hut, was shocked to see 400 oil palm shoots in his plantation chewed up by elephants. Given the damage, “we couldn’t sleep well,” said Ida, Asnawi’s sister, who did not want her crops to suffer the same fate.
Husna, an environmental activist with a local NGO called People’s Conscience, or SAHARA by its Indonesian acronym, said the increase in cases of human-elephant conflict is caused by habitat loss. The cleared land can be seen from Junaidi’s hut, showing the forested hills from afar. Deforestation has eliminated the transition zone between the hills and the village. No lowland forest is visible between the two.
“The elephants come from this hill,” Junaidi said, pointing to a wooded area on the horizon.
North Aceh has long had one of the highest deforestation in Aceh province. His analysis of satellite data generated by Planetscope, which he called the most accurate provider of satellite imagery, shows the district lost 7,508 hectares (18,553 acres) of forest from 2017 to 2020.
Satellite data generated by the Nusantara Atlas forest monitoring platform shows significant deforestation in Leubok Pusaka and Cot Girek, in the northern part of Leuser, over the past two years.
Nurdin, the head of the conservation agency, said data he collected from GPS collars tagged on elephants in North Aceh from 2016 to 2019 showed rainforest had been cleared on the elephant migration routes.
Lilis Indriyani, director of the North Aceh Plantation, Livestock and Animal Diseases Agency, acknowledged the clearing activities at Cot Girek.
“But these lands are classified as non-forest,” she said. Lilis also said that most of this clearing has been done by local people rather than commercial actors. In general, she says, the district is pro-environment. Since 2016, the district has actively enforced a freeze on new oil palm permits. “We no longer allow companies to open new oil palm plantations,” she said. “We also don’t give oil palm seeds to small farmers.”
But on the ground, people are looking at different facts. Junaidi said the cleared land around his hut belongs to powerful government officials. There is also more risk of further deforestation under central government policy grant 8,000 hectares (19,800 acres) of land to ex-combatants of the Free Aceh Movement, or GAM, a now disbanded armed insurgent group. Partai Aceh, the governor’s political party, is the political extension of the movement.
It is always the poor villagers and the elephants who suffer from the conflicts. In Aleu Buloh, Junaidi’s hut is between the forest and oil palm plantations belonging to the state-owned company PT Perkebunan Nusantara I. Junaidi said the company relies on the villagers’ patrol team to mitigate conflicts with elephants, but give them no compensation. “We guard their gate…all information about the movement of wild elephants comes from us,” he said. (PTPN I did not respond to an interview request.)
People like Junaidi and Saleh Kadri have to rely on their own resources to keep elephants away from their village. “We have reported elephant conflicts in our village so many times, but there has been no response from the government,” Saleh said. “Conflict, always conflict. We are tired of this… We hope the government can help farmers like us.
A week after straying into Cot Girek, the elephants managed to leave the village, Nurdin said. They were last seen heading towards Paya Bakung, a sub-district in North Aceh where a huge infrastructure project is being built.
To alleviate annual flooding in Lhoksukon, the capital of North Aceh, authorities are constructing the Kreung Keureto Reservoir in Paya Bakung, which would put an end to herd movements. “It’s a dead end. They will have to come back to…Cot Girek and finally Langkahan, where they cannot cross the river and start their journey again,” Nurdin said.
“Poor elephants…they are being hunted everywhere,” he added. “They don’t know where to go.”
This story was published with permission from Mongabay.com.