Forest destruction and Human-Elephant Conflict are threatening the Bukit Tigapuluh elepant population

During the last decade the area covered by natural forest has been substantially reduced by logging activities and agricultural encroachment. The destruction of the forest resulted in severe conflicts between local farmers and elephants (so called human-elephant conflict, HEC) which has repeatedly caused deaths of both people and animals. Current plans to convert the remaining forest in the center of the elephant habitat are likely to cause further escalation of HEC. If nothing is done to prevent this habitat destruction and to mitigate HEC effectively this may finally lead to the local extinction of the subspecies after a long period of suffering for both, people and elephants,

Habitat Destruction & Encroachment

The natural forest in Bukit Tigapuluh is shrinking at an alarming rate. Large areas have been systematically destroyed by pulp & paper companies which harvest all biomass worthy of paper production. Only some areas have been replanted in the process, often leaving behind large areas of shrub- or grassland where there should be, according to regulations, forest. If trees were planted, usually non-native, fast growing tree species such as Acacia spec. are chosen, which are known to be rarely consumed by most animals in the region, thus providing no food-source for elephants and other native herbivores.

In addition, illegal logging is common and widespread in Bukit Tigapuluh. Several sawmills are active in the region without any effective control. After timber is harvested, often illegal fields and plantations are established, the roads left behind by logging activities (legal and illegal) providing access to remote areas and open up the forest to more people. Furthermore, local farmers and transmigrants are encroaching the forest all over the buffer zone of Bukit Tigapuluh´s national park. After cutting the larger trees they usually burn several hectares of land in order to plant rubber trees or oil palms. Encroachment by farmers is the worst form of habitat destruction, as the conversion of forest into agricultural land is reducing the natural elephant habitat permanently (in selective logged areas there is still the possibility of forest re-growth).
The current situation has already been identified as risky. Nevertheless, logging companies are currently planning the complete conversion or destruction of the most important core zones of the elephant habitat in Bukit Tigapuluh. In addition, several mining concessions have been issued which are at least partly located inside important elephant habitat. The conversion of the most important feeding grounds into Acacia monocultures, agricultural land and/or wastelands left behind by mining activities would definitely trigger escalations of HEC to an extremely high and uncontrollable level in both the short and long term. Hungry elephants will frequently leave the remaining small forest patches and travel deep into agricultural lands, destroying field huts and killing people. It is obvious that this will eventually lead to a local extinction of the species after a long period of suffering for both, people and animals.

Human-Elephant Conflict

In only six month (April 2010 – October 2010) more than 40 field huts were destroyed by elephants. In the same time period, at least 500 ha of fields and plantation were affected by HEC leading to the complete destruction of a minimum of 50 ha. More alarming, in less than 12 months two people have been killed by elephants and another person severely injured during conflict situations. This is a completely new phenomena in Bukit Tigapuluh where elephants were known before then to be relatively “friendly”. Not surprisingly, the damage caused by elephants and the fear which was generated led to radical attitudes in the local population towards elephants. Many people wish the deaths of the elephants or at least a translocation of the animals to another area. Several elephants have been found dead in the last three years in or adjacent to conflict areas, and it is very likely (and proven in six cases) that these animals were poisoned. Further destruction of the elephant habitat will lead to an escalation of conflicts and HEC will remain at an uncontrollably high level.  More people and elephants will lose their lives in addition to commercial and psychological damage, if nothing is done to address the problem effectively.

Crime investigation  by BKSDA officer Krismanko Padang (left) and FZS rescue team (right) trying to help a dying elephant which was found poisoned inside a oil palm plantation (Bukit Tigapuluh Ecosystem 2008, © Frankfurt Zoological Society 2008).

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