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Poachers blamed as body of Sumatran elephant, missing tusks, found in protected forest

Sumatran elephants, photo by Rhett Butler.

  • Farmers in southern Sumatra found the body of a young male elephant inside a protected forest and missing its tusks.
  • No external injuries were found that could point to a cause of death, leading wildlife activists to suspect it was killed by poisoning, a common tactic used by poachers.
  • The discovery comes less than a month after a pregnant elephant was found poisoned to death in northern Sumatra — although in that case the tuskless female appeared more likely to have been killed for encroaching on farms than by poachers.

PALEMBANG, Indonesia — Wildlife activists in Indonesia suspect poachers poisoned an elephant found with its tusks hacked off in a protected forest in southern Sumatra.

The body of the male Sumatran elephant (Elephas maximus sumatranus), believed to be about 10 years old, was found Sunday by local farmers in a community plantation within the Mount Raya protected forest area, which borders Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park in South Sumatra province. The park is also home to critically endangered Sumatran tigers (Panthera tigris sondaica), rhinos (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) and orangutans (Pongo abelii), all of which faced increased threats from greater human incursion into their habitats as a result of road projects.

A male elephant on Sunday found dead with its tusks hacked off in a community plantation in southern Sumatra. Photo courtesy of Jejak Indonesia.

Citing a lack of wounds on the body, wildlife activists believe the elephant was killed by poisoning — a common tactic used by poachers in the region.

Muhroni, a wildlife expert with the environmental NGO Jejak Indonesia, who inspected the body, said the perpetrators likely sprayed the poison on grass, small plants and bushes outside the community plantation. If that’s the case, other elephants from the herd that the young male belonged to could also be in danger, he warned.

Authorities are conducting tests to determine the cause of death.

The discovery on Sunday came less than a month after a pregnant elephant was found dead in an oil palm plantation in Sumatra’s northernmost province of Aceh on Dec. 22.

In that case, authorities said an autopsy showed general signs of poisoning, including the digestive organs having turned black. The elephant was an estimated 25 years old and believed to be at least six months short of giving birth. It did not have tusks, as is typical for female Sumatran elephants.

High rates of deforestation throughout much of Sumatra, primarily for monoculture plantations such as oil palms, rubber and pulpwood, have driven native wildlife from their habitats and into more frequent conflicts with humans. Orangutans and elephants, in particular, are seen as pests by farmers for raiding crops and trampling plants. Locals have in many cases resorted to poisoning or shooting the animals.

Poisoning is also used by poachers targeting the elephants’ tusks. The average wholesale price for ivory in China, one of the key markets for the commodity, was $730 per kilogram (2.2 pounds) in February 2017, according to the Save the Elephants.

There are only an estimated 2,400 Sumatran elephants left in the wild, scattered across 25 fragmented habitats on the island.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Indonesia team and was first published here on our Indonesian site on Jan. 8, 2018.

Banner image: Sumatran elephants, pictured here in Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park. Photo by Rhett Butler/Mongabay.

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