Conservation news

On plantations and in ‘protected’ areas, Sumatran elephants keep turning up dead

  • In Sumatra’s Riau province, 93% of known elephant habitat is in forests where commercial and industrial activity is permitted.
  • In the past five years, at least seven elephants have been found dead in pulp and paper concessions controlled by affiliates of industry giants Asia Pulp & Paper and the APRIL group.
  • Many of these elephants are believed to have been killed by poachers, who activists say can easily enter and leave concession sites. Activists call on concession holders to do more to protect the animals who range on land under company management.
  • Please note: this article contains graphic descriptions and images that could be upsetting to some readers.

The pungent stench of an elephant carcass filled the acacia plantation. Estimates placed its death at six days before it was found on Nov. 18, 2019. Maggots filled the base of its severed trunk. Both tusks were missing, with only 10 centimeters (4 inches) of tusk visible from the animal’s skull before ending abruptly at unnatural cuts.

Belonging to a critically endangered species with a population estimated to stand at around 1,500 individuals, the male Sumatran elephant (Elephas maximus sumatranus) was found in a pulpwood concession operated by PT Arara Abadi in Bengkalis district, Riau province, on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. PT Arara Abadi is a subsidiary of paper industry giant PT Asia Pulp & Paper (APP), part of the Indonesian conglomerate Sinar Mas Group. It was one of 40 remaining elephants that call Giam Siak Kecil Wildlife Reserve home — a home that includes, in large part, the pulpwood concession.

The elephant carcass was reported by PT Arara Abadi management immediately upon its discovery. A subsequent necropsy found no evidence of poisoning, gunshot wounds, or injuries from snares, leading investigators to suspect poachers killed it by cutting off its head.

The Riau provincial police have been handling the case, but have not arrested anyone in connection with the killing.

That was more than a year ago.

Two months later, also in the PT Arara Abadi concession, a team from the Riau conservation agency, or BKSDA, responded to a report of a 4-year-old elephant entangled in a nylon rope. A herd of several dozen other elephants stood by and waited as the crew freed the animal and provided first aid before releasing it back into the group.

The following month, on Feb. 8, 2020, a 40-year-old female elephant was found dead in the same area. Veterinarians from the BKSDA blamed the death on digestive disorders, noting the animal was badly dehydrated — a common sign of poisoning.

An elephant found dead in the PT Arara Abadi concession in February 2020. Image courtesy of BKSDA Riau.

Elephant deaths are not limited to PT Arara Abadi’s concession. They are happening across Sumatra, including in Tesso Nilo National Park to the south, where several animals have been killed in the past year.

Also in February this year, a 3-month-old calf died after being rescued from a concession operated by the APRIL Group, one of the world’s largest pulp and paper producers. Her foot had been trapped in a snare, and was nearly severed as she struggled to free herself. She became sick during her treatment and died at a sanctuary on Valentine’s Day.

Another of the Tesso Nilo herd was killed in April from a gunshot wound to the head. Although its trunk was amputated, the tusks were still intact upon discovery; ax marks at the base of the tusks suggested the poachers were interrupted before they could finish the job. Two men have been arrested in connection with the case, while a third remains at large. The two men arrested are known to be repeat offenders, each jailed multiple times before, for one to two years at a stretch, for elephant poaching.

According to the Tesso Nilo management, at least 24 elephants were found dead between 2015 and 2020 throughout the national park and the Giam Siak Kecil and Balai Raja wildlife reserves just to the north. They have been shot, snared, poisoned, speared, electrocuted, or died from “sickness.” Many of these deaths have occurred on concessions operated by affiliates of APP and APRIL.

“The problem is, there are many routes for hunters to enter and hunt in concession areas,” says Zulhusni Syukri, director of the Riau-based Rimba Satwa Foundation (RSF), who adds that concession holders need to implement increased protections against poaching. RSF has also been fighting against new road construction and development that threatens the remaining elephant habitat in Balai Raja.

Yuliantony, director of Tesso Nilo National Park, says habitat changes have had a domino effect on the elephant population. “If all parties would be willing to share space, changes in elephant habitat could be accommodated,” he says, adding that elephants are fairly adaptable if left to their own devices.

However, Yuliantony says that almost the entire Tesso Nilo area has been fragmented into thin veins of disconnected forest. Much of the landscape has been degraded to secondary forest, despite enjoying some form of “protected” status or having been designated a “wildlife reserve.” Elephant habitat in the Tesso Nilo area now include more than 500,000 hectares (124,000 acres) of timber and pulpwood concessions, palm oil plantations, and the Chevron oil fields that border the Balai Raja reserve.

In this map, Tesso Nilo National Park (purple), can be seen surrounded by a sea of plantations (yellow), most operated by affiliates of industry giants Asia Pulp & Paper and the APRIL group.

Riau province is located in east-central Sumatra, across the Strait of Malacca from Malaysia and Singapore. It has the island’s second-largest elephant population (behind Aceh province on Sumatra’s northern tip) with a 2019 census putting the number of wild elephants at an estimated 216 to 318. This is down 86% from the estimated 1,647 individuals in 1999.

Riau province measures around 8.7 million hectares (21.5 million acres). More than 78% of its forest has been degraded or destroyed since 1982. Between 2002 and 2019, it saw 2 million hectares (4.9 million acres) of primary forest disappear. Oil palm plantations now cover more than 3.4 million hectares (8.4 million acres), while timber and pulpwood plantations occupy another 2.4 million hectares (5.9 million acres).

Historically, authorities have rarely considered the potential impacts of concessions on elephants when issuing permits. As a result, 93% of the 1.02 million hectares (2.5 million acres) of known elephant range in Riau now comprise production or converted forests. Less than 3% of the remaining Sumatran elephants in Riau can be found in protected conservation forests.

Veterinarians from the Riau conservation agency, or BKSDA, measure the severed trunk of an elephant found dead on the PT Arara Abadi concession in November 2019. Image courtesy of BKSDA Riau.

Over the past five years, at least seven elephants have died on lands managed by concessions of APP and APRIL affiliates in Riau, including through snare traps. However, it’s not clear to what extent the companies can be held responsible for those deaths.

Dolly Priatna, head of conservation at APP, says that through their forest conservation policy, the company seeks to protect and conserve key species in the company’s supply areas.

He says APP has been working with independent institutions to prepare and update conflict mitigation strategies so that at-risk species like the Sumatran elephant have a better chance of survival, including mapping travel routes of the herds, and conducting regular patrols with the BKSDA to root out snares installed on their land. In addition, Dolly says the company holds regular training seminars to educate employees, contractors and surrounding communities about elephant conservation.

APRIL subsidiary Riau Andalan Pulp and Paper (RAPP) also says it’s actively engaged in mitigating conflict with elephant herds.

“We always monitor the elephants entering the concession and ensure that the elephants are safe within the company premises until they return to the conservation areas in the Tesso Nilo and Giam Siak Kecil or Balai Raja landscapes,” says Thamrin Hanafi, head of corporate communications at RAPP.

Any employee or contractor of RAPP involved in the killing of an elephant would be immediately terminated and reported to the authorities, Thamrin tells Mongabay. He also says RAPP has mapped travel corridors, works to improve habitat, plants feed for elephants along migration routes, as well as conducts snare patrols. He says he suspects the elephants that have been found dead on company land were likely poisoned in a neighboring community and came into the concession in search of shelter and water.

Wishnu Sukmantoro, an elephant conservation specialist with the Forest Wildlife Society, agrees that, given the current conditions, the best strategy for elephant conservation is to educate land managers and villagers on how to respectfully share space. He says cooperation in this area between the government, companies and surrounding communities has been severely lacking.

Since 2012, Wishnu has been working to develop what he calls a “neutral zone,” with some success. In the past, when elephants entered an acacia plantation or cassava farm, for example, they were harassed and driven off, or injured. Through coaching and education, Wishnu has helped farmers realize that the damage is minimal, and that they should let the elephants pass through these areas peacefully.

“Now, if they enter an acacia plantation, the land managers accept it, since they see there is no significant loss of crops,” Wishnu says. “For example, at RAPP, they welcome the elephants. This has resulted in a lot of elephants residing in the concession because they feel safer there than in the ‘conservation areas’ where there are many encroachers. That’s just how it works.”

Elephant calf Puan was rescued from a concession operated by PT RPI, where her foot was injured by a snare. She died months later in a sanctuary. Image by Suryadi/Mongabay Indonesia.

Other conservationists are not convinced that sharing is the right approach. Supintri Yohar, the forest director for the NGO Auriga Nusantara, says elephant habitat should be considered before permits are given out. He also says current permits that are causing fragmentation of habitat should be revoked.

“The first mistake was from the policies enacted by the [environment] ministry,” Supintri says, citing the case of the Balai Raja and Giam Siak wildlife reserves, which are separated by a concession that doesn’t provide a travel corridor.

This area would be a prime candidate for designation as an essential ecosystem area (KEE), a scheme developed in 2016 to manage elephant habitat outside of conservation areas including critical travel corridors.

Approaches to elephant conservation, whether hard-line or cooperative, are theoretically prioritized by the Indonesian Strategic Plan for Elephant Conservation Action (SRAK) 2019-2029. This collaborative effort by the government and conservation NGOs identifies effective elephant management solutions. Strategies include boosting law enforcement, increasing education, and relocating some elephants to safer habitats. The document is a continuation of SRAK 2007-2017, a similarly optimistic plan.

In 2007, the total Sumatran elephant population was estimated to be around 2,400-2,800. By 2017, the number had been reduced to less than half.

This story was first reported by Mongabay’s Indonesia team and Tempo, and published here on our Indonesian site on Oct. 26, 2020. The reporting team included Sapariah Saturi, Suryadi and Lusia Arumingtyas from Mongabay Indonesia, and Sunudyantoro from Tempo.

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