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Sumatran elephant population plunges; WWF calls for moratorium on deforestation

Sumatran elephants in Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park.
Sumatran elephants in Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

The Sumatran elephant subspecies (Elephas maximus sumatranus) was downgraded to critically endangered on IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species on Tuesday, prompting environmental group WWF to call for an immediate moratorium on destruction of its rainforest habitat, which is being rapidly lost to oil palm estates, timber plantations for pulp and paper production, and agricultural use.

“The Sumatran elephant joins a growing list of Indonesian species that are critically endangered, including the Sumatran orangutan, the Javan and Sumatran rhinos and the Sumatran tiger,” said Dr. Carlos Drews, Director of WWF’s Global Species Programme, in a statement. “Unless urgent and effective conservation action is taken these magnificent animals are likely to go extinct within our lifetime.”

By IUCN estimates, the population of Sumatran elephants has declined by more than 50 percent since 1985. During the same period, Sumatra lost nearly 70 percent of its lowland forest — the preferred habitat for elephants. The loss has been particularly steep in Riau province, where remaining lowland forests are increasingly at risk of conversion for industrial plantations. WWF says that less than 20 percent of Riau’s 1985 population of elephants remains.

“Riau Province has already lost six of its nine herds to extinction. The last surviving elephants may soon disappear if the government doesn’t take steps to stop forest conversion and effectively protect the elephants,” said Anwar Purwoto of WWF-Indonesia. “Forest concession holders such as pulp and paper companies and the palm oil industry have a legal and ethical obligation to protect endangered species within their concessions.”

Pulp and paper suppliers operating in key elephant habitat include Asia Pacific Resources International Holdings (APRIL) and Asia Pulp & Paper (APP), according to environmentalists. The paper giants have been criticized recently for ongoing conversion of natural forests for plantations, although both maintain their activities are legal under Indonesian law.

Sumatran elephants in Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park.
Sumatran elephants in Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park. Photos by Rhett A. Butler

While Indonesia has taken steps to protect blocks of elephant habitat, forest loss and fragmentation exacerbates the risk of human-elephant conflict outside protected areas. WWF says “a large number” have been killed as a result of forest conversion and encroachment.

Accordingly, WWF is now calling for “an immediate moratorium on habitat conversion to secure a future for Sumatran elephants.” The group is urging the Indonesian government “to prohibit all forest conversion in elephant habitats until a conservation strategy is determined for protecting the animals.”

“Urgent measures are needed to protect Sumatra’s remaining natural forests so that future generations of Indonesians can inherit a natural heritage that includes wild elephants, tigers, orangutans and rhinos,” said the group.

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