Elephants help end habitat conflicts in Riau

Elephants help end habitat conflicts in Riau

The local government, NGOs and plantation companies are working together to train elephants in Riau, to put a stop to the many cases of animal-human conflicts in the area.

Last week, wild elephants trampled a man to death in Tasik Serai subdistrict, Pinggir district, Bengkalis regency.

"Being trampled to death by elephants is nothing new here. A man was killed by wild elephants in the 1980s," the chairman of the Association of Nature Loving Youths (HIPPAM) Duri, Zul Husni Syukri, told The Jakarta Post recently.

According to him, the government appeared to have turned a blind eye to the matter, despite the human and financial losses involved.

Zul blamed the government for not taking good care of the wild elephants' habitat.

Providing an example, he said that the 18,000-hectare Balai Raja wildlife reserve, home to some 27 wild elephants, had almost completely been turned into oil palm plantations, leaving only some 150 ha of bush remaining.

"When the forest is no longer there, where can the elephants go when they are herded away from people's fields and homes?" Zul said.

Data from the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) Indonesia showed that human-elephant conflicts in Riau had killed 18 people and injured nine others, while since 2004, 147 wild elephants had been killed.

Given the high potential for human-elephant conflicts, in co-operation with the Riau Natural Resource Conservation Center (BBKSDA), the WWF-Indonesia's Riau programme has since 2004 attempted to mitigate the problem by establishing a so-called "flying squad" in Lubuk Kembang Bunga subdistrict, Ukui district, Pelalawan regency.

The team routinely patrols the Air Hitam and Lubuk Kembang Bunga subdistricts, two permanent routes of wild elephants and Sumatran tigers in Tesso Nilo.

"The flying squad's presence proved to be effective in minimizing conflicts. No lives have been lost. So far, only plants have been destroyed when the elephants enter the villages without being detected," said the squad's coordinator, Ruswanto.

The team, he said, used carbide cannons to scare off wild elephants and herd them out of residential complexes. It used tame elephants for the same ends.

The biggest challenge, according to Ruswanto, was herding solitary adult male elephants, as they tended to take random routes, ending in conflicts.

He added that his team was also often deployed to protect wounded elephants.

Currently, according to Ruswanto, there were four flying squads in Tesso Nilo.

They excluded similar teams managed by PT Riau Andalan Pulp and Paper (RAPP), the Tesso Nilo Foundation and Asian Agri.

He also suggested the establishment of at least two other flying squads in Balai Raja and Giam Siak Kecil, Bengkalis regency, for wider coverage.

He said the most challenging factor in establishing such teams was the operational cost and salaries for elephant carers.

Support for the mitigation efforts using tame elephants has been expressed by Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar.

"If the method is good and effective, make it a standard rule and guideline," she said as she visited Pekanbaru on Saturday.

She also promised to review cases that claimed the lives of humans and elephants to see whether they had been triggered in conservation or concession areas.

"If they occurred in concession areas, then the trigger is company negligence. There must be problems with ecosystem spatial planning so that the concession cuts off wild elephants' routes," she said.

She said license reviews were also being conducted.

Other solutions, according to Siti, included rearranging the ecosystem, which had been a wildlife habitat.

She was confident that the main factor in elephants or tigers venturing out of their natural habitats was a lack of food.

She also asked concession holders to pay more attention to improving the management of their respective ecosystems.

"They should have mapped their areas. In a concession area, there must be wildlife regions that have to be maintained and should not be opened [up to conversion]," she said.

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