Sumatran elephants – facts & threats

Sumatran elephants (Elephas maximus sumatranus) are morphologically, anatomically and genetically different from other sub-species of the Asian elephant. Their skin appears brighter and shows less de-pigmented spots than the skin of other sub-species and almost all males have visible tusks. Sumatran elephants have 20 pairs of ribs rather than the 19 found in other sub-species, and are - with a shoulder height between 2 and 3 meters and a body weight of 2000-4000 kg - on average smaller and lighter than the other elephants (only the Borneo elephant is thought to be of similar dimensions or perhaps even smaller). According to mtDNA studies the elephants of Sumatra form a monophyletic group and can thus be referred to as an evolutionary significant unit (ESU). Therefore, the protection of free roaming Sumatran elephants should consequently be given high priority and individuals in captivity need to be managed independently to other subspecies.

Distribution and Population Size

Elephants were once numerous in Sumatra and - with the exception of steep mountain ranges – could be found almost everywhere on the island. Elephants were captured in the 17th century for the King of Aceh but this didn´t impact the population. During the 350 year long occupation of Indonesia by the Dutch hunting for ivory and “sport” reduced the free roaming elephant population to approximately 3600 animals (this estimate was based on the amount of ivory exported). In 1931, the Sumatran elephant eventually became protected and slaughter of elephants ceased almost completely.
It is surprising how little information is available on Sumatran elephants. The first systematic Sumatra-wide investigation of the population status and distribution was carried out in the 1980s. The total number of elephants was estimated to be between 2800 and 4800 animals at that time, scattered in 44 fragmented populations. However, data collection was limited to short field visits and interviews with local people and forest authorities thus, the estimates were little more than educated guesses. The quality of Sumatran Elephant surveys hasn´t changed much over the years, and a reliable estimate of the total Sumatran elephant population remaining in the wild is currently not possible. However, the distribution of most of the elephant populations is roughly understood. The habitat of the remaining populations is restricted to relatively small areas.  Many of the elephant populations living in very small and isolated forest patches may be gone during the next decade.
Information concerning the population size and status based on modern scientific survey methods is so far only available for the southernmost province of Sumatra and the Bukit Tigapuluh ecosystem. The popular number of +/- 2800 animals remaining in Sumatra is highly speculative and is not based on scientific data. Estimates in this magnitude have been cited for many years despites the fact that large parts of elephant habitat have been destroyed in the meantime. Moreover it is likely that the total population is decreasing yearly, although the actual numbers are not known for the majority of areas. The main factors causing this negative trend are habitat loss, poaching and conflicts with the human population.

Threats – Habitat Destruction and Human-Elephant Conflict

Sumatra´s deforestation rate is among the highest in Southeast Asia.  Between 1990 and 2002 alone approximately 6.7 million hectares of forest were destroyed on the island. The species-rich lowland rain forest suffered enormous losses and only fragments remain. What is left of the Sumatran forests compromises mostly of swampy ground, steep slopes, or forest that is scheduled for destruction. The primary reasons for the dramatic loss of forests in Sumatra are logging (legal and illegal), forest fires, and the clearing of large forest areas in order to plant oil palms, rubber trees and pulpwood. Additionally massive transmigration is occruing into Sumatra and has sped up the process of deforestations substantially: since the beginning of the last century, whole families were relocated from densely populated islands (e.g. Java, Bali, Madura, Lombok) to islands with lower population densities such as Sumatra, Borneo, Sulawesi and Irian Jaya. Millions of people were relocated in the process (up to 4.8 million people per year, in 1989) but the goal to relieve the population pressure on the overcrowded islands significantly has not been realized. In order to provide space for the new arrivals extended amounts of forests were cut and/or burned down by the government. In addition, many families were attracted by the financial success of some settlers, and followed in order to convert the forest to cropping land. This process is still continuing, although governmental funding is rare nowadays and people increasingly move between provinces instead of between islands.
As a consequence, many elephants were forced to suddenly share their territories with people. The resulting conflict between people and elephants (human-elephant conflict, HEC) quickly escalated, and many elephants were killed illegally. However, the problem didn´t cease. In 1986, the Government of Indonesia responded to increasing complaints and began to capture or kill so-called "problem elephants". Some of the animals were relocated, the majority, however, were tamed and housed in special institutions named Elephant Training Centers (ETCs). The elephants were trained to work in the forestry sector, in nature conservation projects or for eco-tourism companies in order to reimburse the government for the high costs of capturing and housing the elephants. However, in most cases these goals could not be realized. Due to a lack of funds and the general inefficiency of the program, the capturing of elephants eventually ceased. However, some 700 elephants arrived in the camps before the new millennium. Many elephants died because of the inadequate housing conditions and poor health care. In 2000, the ETC's were renamed Elephant Conservation Centers (ECC). The tamed elephants should now be increasingly used for patrols in the surrounding protected areas. However, the lack of funding and organizational issues restrict the implementation of this principally good idea to only a few effective projects. The elephants housed at ECCs are not a viable alternative to the conservation of free-roaming elephants as the captive population of about 400 elephants is not self-sustainable. Sumatran elephants are declining, both in captivity and in the wild.
Despite all efforts of governmental and non-governmental organizations HEC remains to be a problem in Sumatra and threatens the long-term survival of the Sumatran elephant. The Indonesian environmental organization ProFauna noted that, according to data from forestry authorities, about 100 elephants and 42 people died during HECs between 2002 and 2007. In addition, elephants are still being poached for their ivory, even though the killing of elephants can attract a punishment of up to 5 years of prison and a fine of 100 million rupiah (about U.S. $ 10,000).

(for cited publications, please see "Literature")


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