For Sumatran elephant conservation, involvement of local people is key (commentary)

by  on 5 January 2021

  • For critically endangered Sumatran elephants, a long-term conservation strategy must include community involvement in mitigating human-elephant conflict, in addition to securing viable habitats.
  • Any successful conflict mitigation should raise the awareness of–and gain acceptance from–the local community, requiring adequate support from governments and conservation NGOs.
  • Only when viable habitats and community involvement are both ensured will the well-being of the local people, as well as the conservation of Sumatran elephants, be secured.
  • This article is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

“Unless urgent and effective conservation action is taken, these magnificent animals are likely to go extinct within our lifetime.”- Dr. Carlos Drews, Director of WWF’s Global Species Program

In 2011, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) listed the Sumatran elephant as critically endangered. According to WWF Indonesia, the population had fallen around 35% in the past two decades from about 2,652 individuals to 1,724.

The two main drivers pushing Sumatran elephants to the brink of extinction are, first, the loss of habitat due to conversion of forests into human settlements, agricultural areas, and plantations, often leading to conflict related deaths, and the fragmentation of elephant populations. Second, Sumatran elephants still remain targets of poaching for ivory.

In order to address these threats and ensure their long-term conservation, what are the potential, urgent and effective actions that can be taken to ensure the conservation of the critically endangered species?

Declining Sumatra primary forest extent from 1990 to 2000, 2005 and 2010. Source: Margono et al., (2012).

A fundamental precondition is the provision of a viable and protected habitat which has sufficient resources to contain their populations, as Sumatran elephants mainly live in lowland forests and hills below an altitude of 300 meters. However, Sumatra has lost nearly 70% of its lowland forests, due to the terrain also being ideal for crop cultivation.

The involvement of the local community in the conservation of Sumatran elephants is crucial. Despite the provision of protected areas, the reality is that as long as there are Sumatran elephants in the vicinity of human settlements, there will be potential for human-elephant conflict (HEC), especially because of crop-raiding. This is due to the fact that even with a viable habitat, Sumatran elephants will still venture out of protected areas in order to forage for crops, as cassava and corn planted along the forest edge are an easy source of food, and are often high in nutritional value.

A cassava field on the edge of the Way Kambas National Park. Photo courtesy of Community for the Conservation of Sumatran Nature [CSNC].

Implementing HEC mitigation around Way Kambas National Park

One of the HEC hotspots in Indonesia is around the Way Kambas National Park (WKNP) in Lampung Province, southern Sumatra. The WKNP covers 1,300 square kilometers of lowland, fresh-water (non-peat) swamp forest. The park has 50 species of mammals many of them critically endangered, including the Sumatran rhinoceros (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis), Sumatran tiger (Panthera tigris sumatrae), Malayan tapir (Tapirus indicus) and the Sumatran elephant (Elephas maximus sumatranus). The WKNP has long been regarded as a high priority area for elephant conservation, and from a 2005 survey, the Sumatran elephant population in the park is estimated to total only 180 individuals.

See related: On plantations and in protected areas, Sumatran elephants keep turning up dead

Way Kambas National Park is near the southern tip of Sumatra Island.

Local communities living near the habitat of elephants tend to bear the brunt of HEC, as it frequently occurs in areas where the park borders farmland. Such conflict can cause loss of crops, damage to houses, and other properties. In a study conducted in 1999, it was recorded that crop raiding at Way Kambas occurs year-round, subjecting farmers in these villages to constant pressure, impacting the lives and livelihoods of their communities.

The challenges posed by HEC have implications for conservation, as it often triggers a violent response from the community, potentially resulting in the killing of the Sumatran elephants. Currently, some of the HEC mitigating measures in place around the park focus on either physical separation, or mitigating the problem by domesticating, translocating, culling problematic elephants, and/or compensating farmers.

In order to effectively address these challenges in the long term, local communities around the WKNP must be placed at the center of the conservation efforts and be seen as key to mitigating HEC. Any mitigation strategy implemented requires their involvement, with support from the government, specifically through the Agency for Conservation of Natural Resources (BKSDA), the forestry police, and relevant conservation NGOs.

An Elephant Response Unit (ERU) patrolling Way Kambas National Park for illegal activities. Photo courtesy of Roderick T.J. Buiskool.

A Need for Ongoing Support

Often the questions relating to the HEC mitigation strategy focus on mitigation ‘tools’ like electric fencing, moats, and crop guarding. These can be provided by the government in collaboration with conservation NGOs, but in order to ensure that they’re successful, focus needs to be placed on how the tools are maintained and implemented in the long term. Therefore, it is important that the implementing government agencies and/or NGOs provide continued support for the local community, with ongoing technical and financial assistance, as well as ongoing oversight for implementation.

Related reading: As a forest in Sumatra disappears for farms and roads, so do its elephants

Community rangers guard cassava fields on the edge of Way Kambas National Park at night, too. Photo courtesy of Roderick T.J. Buiskool.

Ultimately, the choice of the right mitigation strategies and tools has to be chosen in accordance within the local context, where the geography, resources, accessibility, size of area, the culture and knowledge of the local communities are taken into account. But any chosen strategy will eventually fail if it is not considered how local community members can be involved as the main actors of the ongoing implementation and maintenance of the chosen HEC mitigation strategy.

At the moment, though, HEC mitigation is seen as being mainly the responsibility of the government and conservation NGOs, which has led to suboptimal results.

Only when viable elephant habitats and community involvement are both ensured will the wellbeing of the local people – as well as the conservation of Sumatran elephants – be secured.

Roderick T.J. Buiskool holds a Master of Arts in Globalisation and Development Studies from Maastricht University in the Netherlands. His topics of interests include the relationships between political, economic and social factors with environmental issues.

The author wishes to thank Christopher Stremme, DVM from the Community for Sumatran Nature Conservation (CSNC)/ Komunitas Untuk Hutan Sumatera (KHS) for valuable insights and input.