Baby elephant safe in new home after standoff with Aceh village

Diana Parker, Mongabay-Indonesia correspondent
July 15, 2013

A baby elephant held hostage by villagers in Indonesia’s Aceh province was finally handed over to authorities on June 27. Villagers had been taking care of two elephant calves – Raju, who was just a few weeks old, and two-year-old Raja. But after Raja died suddenly last month, a social media campaign sprung up to raise money for Raju’s rescue.

Abdul Thaleb could not hold back tears as he watched rescuers prepare Raju, a baby Sumatran elephant (Elephas maximus sumatranus) likely no more than a few weeks old, for the six-hour journey from Aceh’s Blang Pante village to the Saree Elephant Conservation Center (PKG), which would be his new home. Thaleb had been caring for Raju since villagers found the baby elephant alone without its mother in a nearby forest on June 18. For ten days, he had been feeding the still-nursing calf by hand, fashioning makeshift bottles from plastic bags and purchasing baby formula with donations and money from his own pocket.

“I hope Raju will get better in Saree,” 25-year-old Thaleb told Mongabay-Indonesia. “I was devastated by the death of Raja. Raju must survive.”

The rescue marked the end of a tense standoff between the community and local authorities over Raju’s fate. Raju had been one of two baby elephants living in Blang Pante village. Earlier, villagers had also cared for a two-year-old calf, Raja, after they found the young elephant near the village without its mother.

Raju. Photo by Chik Rini, Mongabay-Indonesia correspondent for Aceh.

Residents said they had captured the calf to keep it safe and prevent it from causing trouble in the village. But when officers from Aceh’s Natural Resources Conservation Agency (BKSDA), a government agency tasked with protecting endangered species and cracking down on the illegal animal trade, approached residents with a plan to bring the elephant to Saree, the community refused. Blang Pante residents claimed the BKSDA had failed to mitigate earlier conflicts with adult elephants in the village and said they were determined to care for the baby elephant themselves unless the government agreed to compensate the community for destroyed crops and property.

“Actually, from the beginning we just wanted to hand the elephant calf over to the government,” said Teungku Hasan, a former combatant with the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), a pro-independence group whose military wing had waged a war against the Indonesian military in the province from 1976 until a peace agreement was signed in 2005. “But the attitude of the officer who came here the first time offended our hearts. What’s more, the government has never cared at all about our fates, though we have suffered losses due to conflicts with elephants. So we resolved to care for the baby elephant [ourselves].”

Blang Pante village has had problems with elephants since the 1980’s. For years, herds of elephants would periodically come through the village, damaging crops such as coffee and rubber trees, and a villager was trampled and killed by an elephant in 1989. However, residents said these conflicts have become increasingly frequent over the last 10 years.

Raju. Photo by Chik Rini, Mongabay-Indonesia correspondent for Aceh.

Aceh forests are a key habitat for critically endangered Sumatran elephants, and around 500 are estimated to live in the province. Sumatran elephants have lost over 70 percent of their habitat in just one generation, according to WWF data, due to deforestation in Sumatra’s lowland forests. Aceh still has the most extensive forest cover left in Sumatra, in part due to the long-running insurgency; however, human activity has increased in forest areas since the armed conflict ended. Now, rapid plantation expansion in the province is leading more and more elephants to enter populated areas, sparking conflicts.

Blang Pante has followed that trend. One resident of the village showed Mongabay-Indonesia a nearby forest that had been cleared for a large-scale rubber plantation but that was never planted, explaining that elephants now enter the village every six months – an increase over previous years – destroying trees, fields and gardens.

“We have already complained to the government and asked them to deal with the elephant problem, but they did not care because there was no money,” said Hasballah, the Blang Pante resident, adding that elephants have frequently damaged his gardens. Without help from the government, residents have had to deal with the problem on their own, using fireworks and carbide cannons to try to scare the animals with loud noises, but the elephants are difficult to drive away and crops are still frequently damaged.

“We hope that, if we take care of these elephants until they are grown, they will no longer bother our crops,” said Hasballah on June 20, just one day before Raja died.

These encounters are dangerous for the elephants as well. Last year, 29 Sumatran elephants were either shot or poisoned, including 14 in Aceh alone. In May, the Jakarta Globe reported that three elephants were found dead on a state-owned palm oil plantation, PTPN I, in East Aceh district, with bars of soap smeared with poison surrounding the carcasses. Elephants like to eat the soap, so hanging poisoned bars of soap from trees is a common technique used to kill elephants in the province. After finding Raju alone near their village, some Blang Pante residents were worried the baby elephant’s mother may have been killed in a similar fashion.

“We are worried [Raju’s] mother died somewhere,” Hasan, a youth leader from Blang Pante village, told Mongabay-Indonesia. “Maybe she ate poison.”

Raju. Photo by Chik Rini, Mongabay-Indonesia correspondent for Aceh.

Raja appeared relatively healthy for most of the two months he spent at Blang Pante. Early on, he had suffered from diarrhea, but he had been seen by a veterinarian and was given de-worming medicine by the villagers. Raja was joined by Raju in mid-June, and seemed healthy in comparison to the much-younger calf, which was sick and weak when he was found near the village, seemingly abandoned by his mother when he was just a few days old. But it was Raja who died suddenly on June 21, sparking concern both in and outside the village that without proper care, Raju could suffer a similar fate.

Raja had looked strong and active, said Anhar Lubis, a veterinarian from Veswicc who had visited the village on June 20, just one day before Raja died. However, he heard villagers were feeding the elephant nuts and other legumes, which could explain Raja’s sudden death. The riverbank where the two elephants were being kept had turned into a sort of petting zoo, with parents bringing their children to see and touch the baby elephants. Vendors had even set up stalls nearby to sell peanuts and other foods for visitors to feed to Raja.

“Baby elephants can only eat grasses,” Anhar said. “They can’t eat legumes because it can cause abdominal bloating and can be fatal, causing sudden death.”

Anhar, who had visited the village to treat Raju for severe diarrhea, said he had warned the Blang Pante residents about the dangers of trying to care for the baby elephants on their own, especially the younger Raju.

“Caring for a baby elephant who is still nursing is not an easy thing. It should be under the supervision of a medical team and experienced staff,” he told Mongabay-Indonesia. “Under the supervision of a medical team the risk of death is still quite high, what’s more when it is cared for by ordinary people who don’t understand [proper elephant care].”

After Raja’s death, the villagers, concerned about Raju’s health and increasingly overwhelmed with the high cost of caring for the nursing calf, changed their demands. They said they would willingly turn Raju over to the BKSDA if the government agreed to reimburse them for the money they had already spent on the elephants’ care. However, when the head of North Aceh district’s Forestry and Plantation Agency came to Blang Pante to try to persuade the community to release Raju, negotiations again failed.

Frustrated with the government’s inaction, a group of volunteers from environmental and animal welfare groups in the provincial capital of Banda Aceh and Indonesia’s national capital, Jakarta, started building a social media campaign to raise money for Raju.

“We were very worried that Raju could die like Raja. The doctor said Raju could only last around two weeks from the last treatment. Saving Raju’s life was a race against time,” said Nurjannah Husien, who helped organize the fundraising efforts.

Raju. Photo by Chik Rini, Mongabay-Indonesia correspondent for Aceh.

Using the #1000untukRaju (#1000forRaju) and #SaveRaju hashtags, volunteers were able to raise enough money to move rescue efforts forward, with donations pouring in from cities across Indonesia and even as far away as Kenya. On the evening of June 26, representatives of the #1000untukRaju and #SaveRaju campaigns reached out to officials from the Aceh Transitional Committee (KPA), an organization formed by former GAM combatants after the 2005 peace agreement. They asked the KPA for help contacting Teungku, a former combatant in Blang Pante who had been helping pay for Raju’s care.

It was an emotional scene the next day when the BKSDA team came to take Raju away, as hundreds of villagers gathered to see the baby elephant off. After speaking with the #SaveRaju volunteers on the phone the night before, Teungku said the Blang Pante residents would agree to release Raju to the BKSDA and asked that the rescue team be sent quickly, as the baby elephant was weak. As the rescuers prepared him for the trip, Raju tottered through the crowd, still wobbly but, according to Rosa, a veterinarian with the PKG Saree rescue center, in better condition than when the medical team had seen him six days earlier. Still, the baby elephant needed eight IV infusions before the team felt he was strong enough for the six-hour journey to Saree. Meanwhile, Thaleb, the young man who had fed and cared for Raju since he arrived at Blang Pante, sat by the elephant, wiping away tears.

“We will take good care of Raju under the supervision of a doctor and an experienced elephant trainer,” said Nurdin, the head of PKG Saree, who led Raju’s evacuation team. Nurdin went on to thank the villagers for caring for the elephant, and promised that they would not change Raju’s name. “Villagers, please stop by Saree to see Raju if you pass by there.”

When he finally arrived at Saree, Raju was met by Agam, a one-year-old elephant who had been found without his mother near a village in East Aceh. Raju now shares a cage with Agam, and both young elephants are cared for by experienced elephant handlers, in keeping with the promise PKG Saree made to the residents of Blang Pante. Handlers at PKG Saree changed Raju’s name to Raju bin Thaleb – or Raju, son of Thaleb – as a way to show thanks to the villagers for caring for the calf. Hopefully this gesture, and Raju’s successful rescue, will help to improve relations between the BKSDA and Blang Pante village, a small but positive step in the struggle to protect Aceh’s elephants.

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Diana Parker, Mongabay-Indonesia correspondent (July 15, 2013).

Baby elephant safe in new home after standoff with Aceh village.