Site update

Since I have been really terrible at updating the blog (but pretty good at keeping up with the facebook blog posts) I've added the widget below so that facebook cross posts to the blog.

You shouldn't need to join facebook but can just click on the links in the widget to access the articles. If you have any problems or comments please mail me at arandjel 'AT'

Monday, December 7, 2009

Protecting wild elephants with their trained counterparts in indonesia

A handler washes an elephant, whose calf is beside them, at Tesso Nilo National Park. At least once a month, wild herds from the park attack one of the nearby settlements. (Photo: Luis Sinco, LA Times)
A handler washes an elephant, whose calf is beside them, at Tesso Nilo National Park. At least once a month, wild herds from the park attack one of the nearby settlements.
(Photo: Luis Sinco, LA Times)

On Flying Squad Patrol With Elephants in Indonesia's Sumatra
from the Jakarta Globe
by John M. Glionna

The wild bull elephant stood menacingly in the clearing, trumpeting in annoyance and anger, its brain racing with a chemical that unleashes a throbbing headache. It was mating season, and the bull was desperate for a partner. Was this a good moment to be sitting atop another elephant just a few hundred feet away?

Syamsuardi, a native of the Sumatran forest, had his strategy: He would pit his own elephant against the amorous intruder. The compact 37-year-old manages the Flying Squad, a herd of tame elephants that patrols the more-than-80,000-hectare Tesso Nilo National Park.

In many nations, dwindling forests have brought deadly conflicts between man and animal. In Sumatra, rampaging elephants have been shot or poisoned by officials or vengeful property owners. Syamsuardi’s team is the brainchild of the World Wildlife Fund, which borrowed the idea from India. The goal: persuade the errant elephants to return to their sanctuary, where lethal run-ins with humans are less likely. For the Flying Squad, brute force isn’t the only option. The team sometimes dispatches a female to mate with a male aggressor, a tactic that has defused tension and produced two offspring: Tesso and Nella.

Confronting the latest angry bull, Syamsuardi sensed this showdown wouldn’t end easily. Perched atop Rachman, the Flying Squad leader, he and the other mahouts, or handlers, positioned two males and two females side by side. They moved slowly forward, with each handler atop an elephant, awaiting the wild bull’s charge.

Syamsuardi recalled the terror of knowing he’d be exposed to piercing tusks and collisions of gigantic bodies. Caught in the middle, he might be crushed like an insect. “It’s tense, but you must be calm and stay quiet,” he said. “I have to be ready to think quickly, because when the time comes, my elephants are waiting for my command.”

The forests that once covered Sumatra’s Riau province — home to the largest elephant population in Indonesia — are disappearing.

In the past 20 years, the paper and palm oil industries have cut down 60 percent of the pachyderm habitat. Just 10 percent of the remaining forest land is suitable for elephants. Since 1985, the province’s elephant population has plummeted to 350 from 1,600. About 80 elephants live within Tesso Nilo National Park.

At least once a month, wild herds from the park attack one of the nearby settlements, activists say. Since 2007, 13 elephants and several residents have been killed in Riau. “If given a choice, elephants would prefer never to see humans,” Syamsuardi said. “But the problem is that humans continue to invade their territory. There’s not enough jungle left.”

In 2004, after a rash of rampages, Syamsuardi began his monumental task: shape a team of animals into an obedient police force. A World Wildlife Fund outreach worker at the time, he knew little about elephants. So he began reading up on the animals and working with them in the field. Now he and his staff of eight handlers foster a bond with their elephant wards. For mahouts such as Adrianto, 26, it means a soothing voice interspersed with strict commands.

One day, Adrianto took 26-year-old Ria and her 2-year-old calf, Tesso, for a bath in a watering hole. Ria trudged though the jungle, grabbing leaves with her trunk, her feet leaving large craters in the soft dirt. At the murky pond, she waded into the water like a four-legged sumo wrestler, with Adrianto on her back. As the animals luxuriated in the cool water, their trunks shooting quick bursts of water, Adrianto scrubbed their backs, talking softly in Indonesian. “Don’t be naughty,” he told Tesso, who nudged him with a forehead sprouting unruly black hairs. Then he pushed the baby’s head underwater and scrubbed behind the ears. “Ria is an actress,” he said later, perched comfortably on her neck as if riding a big, movable easy chair. “She pouts unless she gets what she wants.”

The mahouts treat obedient animals to brownies. But there are sticks that come with such carrots. When Ria resists, Adrianto whacks her on the head with a small metal-tipped stick for discipline. Tesso gets a stick shoved in his ear when he gets too frisky. Before a routine patrol, Syamsuardi showered affection on Ria, rubbing her cheek and neck. He has grown to love the animals, and he fears for their future.

“They’re incredibly loyal,” he said. “When a mahout falls during a fight with a wild bull, the herd will surround him in protection.” They are also immensely powerful. An elephant can topple a pickup truck with one nudge of its forehead. In villages, the animals are referred to as datu , or mister, a term of respect given no other jungle creature.

Syamsuardi has seen the results of the animals’ fury. Every few weeks, they rampage through settlements looking for food or venting anger or frustration. “The male pierces victims with its tusks and then throws them with its trunk. If they are still moving, he’ll stomp them,” he said. “Females mostly kick. Either way, it’s a tragic way to die.”

Syamsuardi uses elephant face-offs as a last resort. His methods have worked: So far, none of the mahouts has been hurt. The team first tries to scare away aggressive herds by setting off carbide cannons. At night, rangers use car lights and blasts of the car horn. If the mating option is used, the team finds a secure spot for the ritual, which can last a week. If the team decides it’s better to make war, not love, fights between the Flying Squad and aggressors can last hours.

As the bull stomped in warning, the Flying Squad approached. The lineup, designed to confuse the invader so it can’t tell which elephant is pack leader, came within a few feet. Finally, the bull lunged at Rachman. Tusks flashing, the two animals collided. Syamsuardi hung on as the other elephants closed in around the intruder, like a gang tackle on the football field. The fight lasted a tense and sweaty 35 minutes, during which the big animals swung their heads, wielding their tusks like swords, their bodies like battering rams. Finally, the bull moved off into the brush.

For now, Syamsuardi knew, the big animal was safe.

“I was so satisfied. We didn’t have to kill that bull,” he said.

“We just gave him a message: Go back to the forest with your own kind. You’ll live longer that way.”

Thanks to Chrissie E. for the link

No comments: