Indonesia: Living in Peace With the Elephants, Most of the Time

Ratri M. Siniwi Jakarta Globe 29 Aug 16;

Bandar Lampung. Living near conservation areas in one of Indonesia’s biologically diverse national parks might be a dream for some, but a hassle for many.

East Lampung’s Way Kambas National Park is bordered by 22 villages which are home to some 47,000 residents. Most of them make a living growing paddy, corn and cassava.

The Way Kambas National Park is also known as the first elephant training center in the archipelago, with some 250 elephants being let to roam the 1,300-square kilometer national park.

Since the 1980s, residents have seen an increase of human-elephant clashes in and near the national park due to elephants feeding off their fields, driven out of the national park by severe habitat degradation within the area.

"Historically speaking, elephants have been known to disturb the villagers from time to time. In 1982, palm plantations were destroyed by elephants at the Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park [in South Sumatra]," Subakir, Way Kambas National Park head manager, said.

According to Subakir, human-elephant conflicts are almost inevitable and the only thing we can do to minimize them is to increase conservation efforts and handle immediately any issue arising from them.

As Sumatran elephants are protected under Indonesian law and listed in the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s red list of critically endangered species, everyone — including the Way Kambas villagers — should know that killing elephants is simply a no-go.

"We’re not shooing them away, we want to bring them back to their natural habitat," Labuhan Ratu 6 village chief Edi Susanto said.

Edi has seen his fair share of clashes between humans and elephants since he moved to the area three decades ago, but said he had never seen a fatal one. Nevertheless, he believes we will never see an end to the conflict unless one of them backs down.

"The two impossible options are if the elephants die, or if we, the villagers, leave," he said.

Elephants have made life hard for some of the villagers, stampeding into their paddy fields and eating ripe paddies at harvest time, leaving very little for the farmers to sell or eat.

Many of the villages around the national park have taken to do-it-yourself efforts to prevent clashes with the elephants. Drums made out of used oil tanks are converted into an elephant alarm system for the villages, a canal too deep for the elephants to cross and a stonewall too high for them to go over separate the national park from the villages.

"Most of these were done by the villagers themselves. They're always on the lookout for better methods to minimize conflict between humans and elephants," Sugiyo, Wildlife Conservation Society Indonesia Program (WCS-IP) field officer said at the Way Kambas National Park.

Sugiyo said the stonewalls are working quiet nicely, but at a cost — a real challenge for the villagers as they have never received any funding for this effort. "They just use whatever materials they have lying around to build the walls," Sugiyo said.

Since 2002, the Wildlife Conservation Society Indonesia Program has been supporting the villagers by helping them find better methods to reduce conflict between humans and elephants, and by building better barriers in the borders between the national park and the villages.

The conservation program also helped establish an elephant night watch squad in the villages — a group of trained rangers who work at night to watch out for wild elephants going into the villages.

Every night, the rangers come equipped with flares and fireworks to shoo away the elephants.

"It’s hard when only one elephant comes, because it’s harder to spot. Luckily, they mostly come in herds, much easier to spot and control," one of the night rangers, Joni, said.

According to him, the best way to guide the elephants back to their homes is by following them from behind.

When the Jakarta Globe team took part in the night watch, no elephants were spotted. But the rangers said that's not a reason to drop their guard.

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