Banda Aceh. A female Sumatran elephant, estimated to be seven years old, died last week in the district of Aceh Jaya, the sixth elephant death this year in Aceh.
The carcass was found on a river bank in Masen village in the subdistrict of Sampoiniet, Aceh Jaya, on Monday. The animal was estimated to have died a week ago and investigators could not confirm the cause of death on Dec. 3.
“Local residents said the elephant died because it was caught in a trap — there’s a rope on its leg,” Amon Zamora, the head of Aceh’s Natural Resources Conservation Agency (BKSDA), told the Jakarta Globe on Tuesday. “The BKSDA team sent to the location is still conducting an investigation.”
Amon said the team was performing an autopsy to investigate the cause of the death, including whether or not the animal had been poisoned — am increasingly common cause of elephant deaths in Aceh.
The recent finding brings the number of elephants found dead in Aceh in 2013 to six.
In May, a 10-year-old male elephant died due to electrocution in Bangkeh village in the Pidie district.
In June, a two-year-old elephant calf died in Blang Plante village in North Aceh, two months after villagers took the animal in after it was left behind by its herd in a nearby plantation.
On July 13, a 30-year-old male elephant was found dead in Ranto Sabon village in Aceh Jaya after being caught in a metal trap.
On July 27, two elephant carcasses were found decaying in an oil palm plantation run by state-owned plantation firm PTPN I in Blang Tualang village in East Aceh district.
Amon said elephant-human conflicts had become widespread across 19 out of 23 districts and municipalities in Aceh, with Aceh Jaya, East Aceh, Pidie, South Aceh, Singkil and North Aceh reporting the most problems.
“The conflicts keep happening because the routes used by elephants have been converted into plantations,” he said. “We’ve called on people several times against disturbing the elephants’ pathway, but it keeps happening.”
Amon said only around 200 Sumatrans elephants remained in the wild in Aceh forests.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has classified Sumatran elephants as critically endangered. The population in the wild — spread over Sumatra and Borneo — is estimated at between 2,400 and 2,800 individuals.
The Worldwide Fund for Nature says around 70 percent of the Sumatran elephant’s habitat has been destroyed by deforestation in the last 25 years.
We are writing requesting you to lend your voice to a positive campaign to improve the protection and management of the Leuser Ecosystem (KEL) in Aceh, Sumatra. By faxing the attached letter, to the Governor Aceh, and the provided contact list in attachment, you will greatly emphasise the full list of recipients. In addition we hope this action will gain media attention and act as a catalyst for garnering further support for this campaign.
The attached letter urges the Governor of Aceh to nominate KEL to become a new UNESCO World Heritage Site (WHS). You are likely aware of the recent Science article (Le Saout et al., 2013) in which KEL was identified as one of the world’s foremost exceptionally irreplaceable areas for the conservation of threatened species. KEL is already recognized as a protected area under National law in Indonesia, not least due to its critical ecological services to communities, agriculture and industry. A nomination for World Heritage status would build upon this national and international recognition.
You may also be aware of the controversial spatial plan proposed by Aceh Parliament which received a great deal of media attention this year. Recently we have learned that a ‘Pergub’ has also been drafted: a Governors Law on KEL that would ‘legalize’ widespread damage to the critically important lowlands of the NE in particular. This is currently being aggressively pursued in order to push it through before the end of the year, disregarding calls by experts to wait for environmental sensitivity analyses of these irreplaceable areas.
A united positive message from the international scientific community now would therefore be extremely timely. Receiving a large volume of signed faxes from scientists and leading international institutions will highlight the incompatibility of a nomination for World Heritage status with the current Aceh spatial plan and impress upon the Governor of Aceh the fact that our community is paying close attention to the management and protection of this area.
The letter is addressed to the Governor of Aceh and we also ask you to fax the letter to various overseas embassies and the donor/aid community in an attempt to highlight a better way forward for Aceh. The aim is to create a situation in which these organisations can support the Aceh Government with technical expertise and funding to create and implement a scientifically sound spatial plan. A viable plan will maintain the biodiversity and environmental function of Aceh’s forests (e.g., water resources, mitigation of natural disasters), whilst maximising the opportunities for long-term sustainable economic development for Aceh.
We appreciate the effort required to send these as fax, but emails alone risk being drowned out in a “wave of protest” as we also have 4 public email petitions supporting this WHS nomination in preparation. By sending this as fax is separates this action from the easy click petitions, and highlights the importance of this action. Therefore, if you are willing to put your name to the attached letter, we ask that you aim for the highest impact possible and fax it as soon as possible to the list below. The costs of faxing are only manageable shared between us all.
Please find list of contacts and fax numbers in an attachment at the bottom of this post.
If you cannot fax from your institution’s fax machine, here is a link with methods to fax from your computer if you have a landline attached, or by using online services*: http://www.wikihow.com/Fax-Without-Using-a-Fax-Machine
(*Note that you will need to sign up for a 30 day free trial to use some free online fax services, be sure to cancel if you don’t wish to pay a monthly subscription fee beyond that).
Please email a scan of your letter letting us know that you have taken this action to: email@example.com
We appreciate you sharing this email with your networks.
Ian Singleton1 and Rudi Putra2
1Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme
2Future for Nature Award Winner (2013)
sample letter from GRASP letter Aceh Governor
The two-day event (20 to 21 Nov) was attended by representatives of Mukim Association, NGOs, UKP4, donor institutions and academicians. The workshop event was intended to criticize and to advocate the Draft Provincial Law (Qanun) on Aceh’s Spatial Plan, which will be approved by the Parliament of Aceh by the end of this year. The workshop has resulted following recommendations:
1. That spatial plan of Aceh does not yet balance the ecological, economical and social interests, therefore the needs for inclusion of articles in the draft law in terms of adjusting economic activities within ecological areas for not to disturb the areas protection functions; to evaluate companies abandoning their existing concessions; to add point e at the end of Paragraph 2 of the Article 47 with “Leuser Ecosystem as National Strategic Area” (in conjunction
with other Articles related to Leuser Ecosystem); to include Ulu Masen into Aceh Provincial Strategic Area (preparation for carbon stock); to include spatial plan of the area of mukim; to include wildlife corridor; to establish a special team to evaluate the development of economic zones that consider the environmental aspects;
2. Considering Water Catchment Areas, some steps are to be taken: to give directions in the management of water catchment areas based on the principles of local knowledge; reforestation;
3. Recommendations in the aspects of natural disaster, consisting of: data crosscheck with institutions holding disaster data such as soil sensitivity maps, wild life conflict and wildlife corridors; comprehensive review of the aspects of natural disaster of Aceh’s spatial plan;
4. Concerning disharmony at national, provincial and district levels, following ssteps are recommended: academic studies on the harmonisation of the existing regulations at both central and provincial levels focusing in those related to Aceh’s spatial plan, including considerate studies and profound studies.
Recommendations resulted from this workshop will be submitted to the provincial government and the Parliament of Aceh that are now “cooking” the spatial plan.
Meanwhile, Frans Siahaan from Asia Foundation addressed in his closing speech that until now this institution has no special program for Aceh. “We have yet no program for Aceh. But all that achieved together today can hopefully accepted as our starting commitment”.
As for the speaker of KPHA, Efendi Isma, hoped that the recommendations resulted by the workshop participants can be useful for Aceh. “I will keep everyone updated. Thank you for the participation in these two days, hopefully this can become useful for Aceh,” concluded Efendi Isma. (Arunda) RTRWA
Photo Credit : Paul Hilton / Forest, Nature and Environment Aceh
[MEDAN, NORTH SUMATRA] A large demonstration initiated by controversial palm oil company Pt Kalista Alam, who is accused of illegally destroying some of the world’s most important remaining orangutan habitat on the west coast of Sumatra, has disrupted the Meulaboh district court today where the Indonesian Ministry of Environment is prosecuting the company for environmental crimes. The potentially precedent-setting case has received international attention and is being monitored closely by NGOs, scientists, the government and industry alike.
The court was temporarily delayed as an estimated 150 palm oil workers, who arrived by busses believed to be paid by Pt Kalista Alam, conducted a noisy demonstration before the court, demanding the court find in favour of the controversial company. The same company had one of its palm oil concessions cancelled in September 2012, after administrational courts found the permit had been granted illegally, and last week its assets were frozen by the civil court as its process draws to an expected close. The final hearing has now been scheduled for December 5th where now the judges are expected to deliver a final ruling.
“PT Kallista Alam is one of several palm oil companies illegally burning forests on deep peat within the Leuser Ecosystem during the last few years” Said Dr Ian Singleton, Director of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme, speaking at a packed media event outside a major international RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) conference in Medan earlier today. “We congratulate the Indonesian Ministry of Environment on its action against PT Kallista Alam, but also remind people that a potentially devastating new spatial plan being proposed by the Provincial Government still threatens huge swathes of Aceh’s forests and their incredibly unique biodiversity, in addition to Aceh’s people and their economic livelihoods. If approved, this new plan is likely to lead to an upsurge of new legal cases due to the massive increase in environmental damage it will undoubtedly cause.”
“If the new spatial plan goes through it will be the the end of the Sumatran Elephant” Dr Singleton concluded.
“There can only be one word to describe the situation for the Leuser Ecosytem, and it’s emergency.” warned Kamaruddin SH, an Acehnese lawyer who represented communities in Tripa with their complaints against PT Kallista Alam. “The Leuser Ecosystem is a Nationally Strategic Area protected for its Environmental Function, It is currently illegal for any district, provincial or national leader to issue permits for palm oil, mining or any other activity that would degrade the environmental function of the Leuser Ecosystem, but powerful business lobby is currently trying to undo this, not to support community, but to line their pockets with the assets of Aceh. Todays show of intimidation by Pt Kalista Alam outside the court in Meulaboh is just one example of many companies attempting to intimidate the legal and political processes of Aceh, it deserves close scrutiny from anti corruption and legal agencies.
Landscape planning and GIS specialist, Graham Usher, showed satellite information and data analysis that highlighted the extreme sensitivity of Aceh’s environment. “Much of Aceh’s remaining forests are on steeply sloping terrain, that should be off limits to development under existing spatial planning regulations. Clearing forests and building roads in such areas is simply not safe, and potentially disastrous.
“What will happen if these forests are cleared is very clear, and easy to predict. We will see a collapse of the ecosystem, and the loss of the environmental benefits they provide to Aceh’s people. This will lead to food security problems in the future, in addition to a huge increase in flash floods, erosion and landlsides. It’s not rocket science”, he stressed. “it’s simply cause and effect. To open new roads and exploitive industrial concessions in the heart of Aceh will only result in even further destruction, and lead to a rash of new, entirely avoidable, social conflicts. It’s not only unique biodiversity that will suffer, Aceh’s people will suffer greatly as well!”
“Aceh is currently suffering from environmental anarchy, there is next to no law enforcement, and local elites are left to take what they want without monitoring or fear of legal consequences.”
“The community of Aceh feels that promises have been broken” stated TM Zulfikar, former Chairman of Friends of the Earth, Aceh. While many supported Governor Zaini in his election, there is now increasing frustration and anger being expressed towards his administration. “If we’d known Aceh was going to be carved up, cut down, and sold to the highest bidder most would probably have voted differently.
“Recently the Aceh Government told us at a public meeting that there is no budget left for the development of the Province’s spatial planning and that it therefore needs to be approved and ratified before the end of December. But they have still not completed any environmental sensitivity analysis and key data and information has failed to be shared. I seriously worry what the Government will do in the next two months. If things happen as we hear, he will forever be recorded in history as the Governor who returned Aceh to social conflict and environmental destruction.” Concluded Mr Zulfikar.
Gemma Tillack with Rainforest Action Network called on international consumer companies who use palm oil in their products to demand that their suppliers verifiably guarantee that the oil they supply is not connected to rainforest destruction like that taking place in Tripa. “Tripa and the Leuser Ecosystem are globally important areas. It is imperative that consumer companies take responsibility for the fact that Conflict Palm Oil like that produced at the expense of the Tripa peat swamp is making its way into the global marketplace. Companies like the “Snack Food 20” targeted by Rainforest Action Network (RAN) urgently need to engage with their supply chains and implement truly responsible palm oil procurement policies that demand palm oil be produced without contributing to rainforest destruction, climate pollution or human rights abuses.”
For further information please contact:
Dr Ian Singleton
Conservation Director, Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program (SOCP)
Landscape Sensitivity Analyst, PanEco Foundation
Aceh Communications Officer, Yayasan Ekosistem Lestari (YEL)
Lawyer for Tripa Community Coalition
Senior Agribusiness Campaigner, Rainforest Action Network
LONDON (CNN) — Africa’s western black rhino is now officially extinct according the latest review of animals and plants by the world’s largest conservation network.
The subspecies of the black rhino — which is classified as “critically endangered” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species — was last seen in western Africa in 2006.
The IUCN warns that other rhinos could follow saying Africa’s northern white rhino is “teetering on the brink of extinction” while Asia’s Javan rhino is “making its last stand” due to continued poaching and lack of conservation.
“In the case of the western black rhino and the northern white rhino the situation could have had very different results if the suggested conservation measures had been implemented,” Simon Stuart, chair of the IUCN species survival commission said in a statement.
“These measures must be strengthened now, specifically managing habitats in order to improve performance, preventing other rhinos from fading into extinction,” Stuart added.
The IUCN points to conservation efforts which have paid off for the southern white rhino subspecies which have seen populations rise from less than 100 at the end of the 19th century to an estimated wild population of 20,000 today.
Another success can be seen with the Przewalski’s Horse which was listed as “extinct in the wild” in 1996 but now, thanks to a captive breeding program, has an estimated population of 300.
The latest update to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species reviews more than 60,000 species, concluding that 25% of mammals on the list are at risk of extinction.
Many plants are also under threat, say the IUCN.
Populations of Chinese fir, a conifer which was once widespread throughout China and Vietnam, is being threatened by the expansion of intensive agriculture according to the IUCN.
A type of yew tree (taxus contorta) found in Asia which is used to produce Taxol (a chemotherapy drug) has been reclassified from “vulnerable” to “endangered” on the IUCN Red List, as has the Coco de Mer — a palm tree found in the Seychelles islands — which is at risk from fires and illegal harvesting of its kernels.
Recent studies of 79 tropical plants in the Indian Ocean archipelago revealed that more than three quarters of them were at risk of extinction.
In the oceans, the IUCN reports that five out of eight tuna species are now “threatened” or “near threatened,” while 26 recently-discovered amphibians have been added to the Red List including the “blessed poison frog” (classified as vulnerable) while the “summers’ poison frog” is endangered.
“This update offers both good and bad news on the status of many species around the world,” Jane Smart, director of IUCN’s global species program said in a statement.
“We have the knowledge that conservation works if executed in a timely manner, yet, without strong political will in combination with targeted efforts and resources, the wonders of nature and the services it provides can be lost forever.”
Written by Thallif Deen
UNITED NATIONS—The tiger population in the rainforests of Sumatra is vanishing at a staggering rate, reducing the number of the endangered species to as few as 400, warns Greenpeace International.
The primary reason is the expansion of oil palm and pulpwood plantations, which are responsible for nearly two-thirds of the destruction of tiger habitat from 2009 to 2011, the most recent period for which official Indonesian government data are available.
In a new study released last week, Greenpeace says such destruction fragments the extensive tracts of rainforest over which tigers need to range in order to hunt.
“It also increases their contact with humans,” the study says. “This leads to more poaching for tiger skins and traditional medicines and more tiger attacks, resulting in both tiger and human deaths.”
The decline of Sumatran tigers is a measure of the loss of rainforest, biodiversity and also climate stability, according to the study titled “Licence to Kill.”
This summer, huge fires, both accidental and deliberate, raged across the Sumatran province of Riau, destroying hundreds of thousands of hectares of rainforests—including the deep peatland forests that are a last stand of tiger habitat in the province.
The fires released record amounts of greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions and pollutants in a haze that stretched as far as Thailand.
There are no estimates on how many tigers have been killed so far, although the figure could be in the thousands over the last decade.
Asked whether the United Nations is engaged in the protection of tigers, Bustar Maitar, the Indonesian head of Greenpeace’s Forest Campaign and Global Forest Network, told Inter Press Service (IPS), “I don’t see much UN activity on forests.
“The only thing I know is the UN Development Programme [UNPD] manages a $1-billion fund from the Norwegian government for the UN collaborative initiative on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation [REDD].” He said REDD was working closely with its Indonesian counterpart to accelerate REDD projects in Indonesia.
Maitar also said the UN’s focus is more on general sustainable development and democracy in Indonesia than on protecting the tiger, described as a critically endangered species.
“Or they might not really be clear as to how to fit in with this issue in Indonesia,” he said, adding that the UN could provide more technical assistance and capacity building for government and civil society.
The UN REDD program was launched in 2008 and encompasses the technical expertise of UNDP, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and the UN Environment Programme.
It supports nationally led REDD+ processes and “promotes the informed and meaningful involvement of all stakeholders, including indigenous peoples and other forest-dependent communities, in national and international REDD+ implementation,“ according to the United Nations.
Currently, about 85 percent of Indonesia’s GHG emissions typically come from land-use changes (principally related to deforestation for plantations or agriculture), and around half of this is peat-related.
Even Sumatran tiger habitat in protected areas such as the world-famous Tesso Nilo National Park has been virtually destroyed by encroachment for illegal palm-oil production, and government officials acknowledge that protection for such areas exists only on paper, Greenpeace International says.
The study also points out that forested tiger habitat in licensed plantation concessions has no protection at all. One million hectares—10 percent of all remaining forested tiger habitat—remained at risk of clearance in pulp and oil palm concessions in 2011. Over the 2009-to-2011 period, pulpwood suppliers were responsible for a sixth of all forested tiger habitat loss. And during the same period, the palm-oil sector cleared a quarter of the remaining tiger habitat in its concessions.
“These failures expose how unregulated and irresponsible expansion, notably of oil palm and pulp wood plantations, undermines the Indonesian government’s commitments to stop deforestation and to save the tiger and other endangered wildlife,” the study says.
Greenpeace also says its investigations have revealed that household foreign consumer brands are linked to Singapore-based Wilmar International Ltd. and its international trade in dirty palm-oil.
Wilmar is the world’s largest palm-oil processor, accounting for over one-third of the global palm oil processing market and with a distribution network covering over 50 countries.UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon points out that forests are vital for human well-being.
In a message for the International Day of Forests in March, Ban said forests cover nearly a third of the globe and provide an invaluable variety of social, economic and environmental benefits.
Three-fourths of freshwater comes from forested catchment areas. Forests stabilize slopes and prevent landslides, while also protecting coastal communities against tsunamis and storms.
More than 3 billion people use wood for fuel, some 2 billion people depend on forests for sustenance and income, and 750 million live within them, he added.
Ban also said forests are often at the frontlines of competing demands. Urbanization and the consumption needs of growing populations are linked to deforestation for large-scale agriculture and the extraction of valuable timber, oil and minerals.
Often the roads that provide infrastructure for these enterprises ease access for other forest users, who can further exacerbate the rate of forest and biodiversity loss. “We need now to intensify efforts to protect forests, including by incorporating them into the post-2015 development agenda and the sustainable development goals,” Ban noted.
“I urge governments, businesses and all sectors of society to commit to reducing deforestation, preventing forest degradation, reducing poverty and promoting sustainable livelihoods for all forest-dependent peoples,” he said.
The slaying of a mighty tusker by villagers in Indonesia’s Aceh province may have become a national scandal, writes Cortlan Bennett, but it has made the predicament of elephants being squeezed out by deforestation and mining even more precarious. Pictures by Paul Hilton
South China Morning Post/Post Magazine – October 2013
Elephants mourn their dead. They are the only creatures apart from man known to ritualise death; touching, cradling, burying the deceased … sometimes crying and moaning in grief. To those who know and work with elephants, they are very much like ourselves. And, of course, they never forget. So perhaps it isn’t hard to believe the legend of Papa Genk.
A mighty bull with magnificent tusks, his name meant simply “The Boss”. At 22, he was a dominant beast – a giant, even among Sumatran elephants – and well known to the villagers of Ranto Sabon. The surrounding jungle, in a remote part of Indonesia’s northwest Aceh province, was home to his wild herd. It was here, in July, that Papa Genk was butchered.
Frustrated by raids on their crops, some villagers had long targeted Genk. Poison didn’t kill him. Traps didn’t hold him. But a tripwire – attached to a giant spear log that fell from a tree and drove through his skull – finally put Genk to rest. His eyes and ivory tusks were removed, his trunk sliced off at the brow. His grey corpse was left to rot on a damp jungle trail and there, many thought, his story would end.
Soon after the killing, however, a young male appeared from the jungle. Smaller, less defined than The Boss, the bull still resembled his father. He walked into an elephant sanctuary and approached a resident female and calf.
“The male elephant lifted his trunk and whispered into the mother’s ear,” a young Acehnese woman recalls. “He said: ‘Genk is dead,’ and when she heard that, tears rolled down her face. She was Genk’s wife.”
The mother, Suci, is now housed in another refuge with her young calf, Rosa – fathered by Genk – near the provincial capital, Banda Aceh. They were removed for their own protection. Genk’s death drove Indonesian President Dr Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to call for the punishment of his killers. Few people in Indonesia have not heard the elephant’s story.
THERE MAY BE AS FEW as 400 wild elephants in Aceh, an equatorial oasis at the tip of Sumatra, Indonesia’s largest island. It is home to the world’s third-largest tropical rainforest and is the only place on Earth where endangered tigers, rhinos, orang-utans and elephants are found together.
“We’ve probably got less than 100 tigers in the whole of Aceh,” says New Zealand zoologist Mike Griffiths, who has lived and worked in the province for 30 years. “Maybe 100 rhinos, 400 elephants – it’s the last days.”
Griffiths is acutely aware of Aceh’s competing interests. As a geologist and former oil explorer, he recognised its biodiverse value, first documenting Aceh’s dazzling array of wildlife in a book, Indonesian Eden, while pioneering camera trapping, before turning to conservation full time.
Like those in much of the developing world, Aceh’s forests are threatened by mining, poaching, logging, plantations and farms. The land squeeze has all but wiped out the Sumatran tiger and rhinoceros while bringing wild elephants into ever-increasing conflict with humans.
Aceh is no stranger to conflict, having waged a 30-year separatist war that ended with the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, which claimed 130,000 local lives. Now autonomous – and the only part of Indonesia to legislate Islamic sharia law – it is opening up and rebuilding, carving roads and infrastructure into the unscathed forests that once hid Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (GAM; the Free Aceh Movement) guerillas.
Many in Aceh are proud of their forests, which are renowned for their rich wildlife and minerals. But those who profess to look after them don’t always do so. In 2007, former governor Irwandi Yusuf, a United States-trained veterinarian and conservation worker, banned logging and established a carbon sink to protect the 740,000-hectare Ulu Masen Ecosystem, in Aceh’s central-west. He also oversaw the installation of a new management authority to govern the 2.6-million-hectare Leuser Ecosystem, in the southwest, which was granted national protection the same year.
As one of the last refuges of Sumatra’s orang-utans and home to much of the country’s remaining biodiversity, Leuser is considered the most valuable ecosystem in Indonesia and one of the most important conservation areas in the world. It was formally recognised by the people of Aceh as far back as 1925, when they lobbied the colonial Dutch to protect it.
After having signed away 1,605 hectares of native peat swamp to a local palm oil company in 2011, Irwandi lost power last year. The management authority, Badan Pengelola Kawasan Ekosistem Leuser, was disbanded, leading to immediate illegal clearing and mining, and new governor Zaini Abdullah is now considering opening 1.2 million hectares of virgin rainforest, much of it in the Leuser Ecosystem, to mining, logging and palm oil.
It’s a proposal that cuts to Griffiths’ heart, for he was instrumental in defining the Leuser Ecosystem and its boundaries, and established the Leuser International Foundation in 1994 to help protect it.
“The Leuser Ecosystem boundaries are based on the natural migration patterns of all these large animals and the minimum size required to support viable populations,” he explains. “It’s a natural entity – it can’t get any smaller. If you lose just 10 per cent of Leuser, you lose half of what’s inside.”
You also lose more than US$400 million a year in ecological services, according to Griffiths – not to mention much of Aceh’s rice production.
“Water’s a huge issue. There’s barely enough to keep the industrial heart of Aceh running – and it all comes from Leuser. The peak rice-growing season is during the dry season, using irrigated water. If you cut down the trees and drain the peat swamps, there’s not enough irrigated water to grow year-round. You lose all that rice for a few palm-oil plantations.”
But by far the biggest threat to Aceh’s forests is infrastructure. “Roads open the area to logging and poaching. Migration is widespread and irreversible. That is far more devastating,” says Griffiths.
SULAIMAN IMAM MUKIM feels like the last man standing. The district chief is fighting for his tiny village of Mane, in Aceh’s central highlands.
“Can you help us?” he pleads. “All around us are gold mines. They use mercury and poison the rivers. There are no fish – the people are sick – but all they can see is gold. Even the buffalo have died from drinking the water.”
The frustration in Sulaiman’s voice needs no translation. He is locked in battle with the neighbouring village of Geumpang, the site of large-scale illegal gold mining inside the Ulu Masen Ecosystem. The wildcat miners dig deep shafts, which they line with timber cut from the forest, and process the ore with mercury, which extracts the gold. The toxic tailings are dumped nearby. Mercury is water soluble and causes irreversible brain damage and cognitive degeneration. It builds up in fish and can taint irrigated crops.
Sulaiman says most of the mine technicians are from Jakarta and other parts of Java while the gold is sold through Chinese networks. Local labourers are paid up to 300,000 rupiah (about HK$200) a day – a fortune in Aceh, but only a fraction of the value of the gold being extracted.
“The local villagers know they’re not going to be rich – they’re not the ones who end up with the gold,” Sulaiman says, adding there are an estimated 900 shafts in the area, each supporting up to 30 miners.
“There are 50,000 miners up there,” counters 42-year-old Muchtarruddin (who, like many Indonesians, goes by one name), the self-proclaimed biggest gold retailer in Geumpang. “I sell up to 2.5kg of pure gold a month.”
Muchtarruddin pulls three 200-gram ingots of white amalgam from his safe. Each ingot is about 50 per cent pure gold, he says. The white colour comes from other metals, such as silver. “And mercury,” he says. “We choke [melt and process] the ingots to separate the gold to make it pure.” The mercury vapour is released into the air.
The gold dealer offers to take us to his own mine, which is “a day and night’s travel from here”, but we don’t have time. Earlier, we tried to enter the mining zone 16 kilometres from Geumpang, but were refused. We were told to get permits from those controlling the area: former GAM separatists, backed by the military and police.
Muchtarruddin confirms GAM controls the permits but is reluctant to say how much they cost. “It depends on who you are,” he smiles.
In a nearby village home, five farmers in their early 30s sit on the floor drinking coffee. They’ve been mining in their spare time for the past eight years.
“We know about the dangers,” one says. “We produce the gold with chemicals. We don’t know exactly how dangerous they are, but all the fish are dead. We’re not foolish, though – we’re not sick. I’ve made 100 million rupiah in three months.”
Back in neighbouring Mane, Sulaiman shakes his head: “They don’t realise they are slowly getting sick. They’ve already poisoned five rivers – that’s why we have to protect this area. We have one river we depend on for drinking and irrigation.”
The illegal mining has led to other dangers for Mane’s villagers, including conflict with wild elephants.
“The elephants migrate during different seasons,” Sulaiman says. “But their forest is being cut down. They come here looking for food and we turn them back. Then they run into the miners in the mountains and they turn them back. The elephants are caught in the middle.”
Sulaiman has tried reasoning with the miners and provincial government, but to no avail. His village is powerless against the military and former freedom fighters.
“The world depends on Aceh,” he says. “There aren’t many forests like this left. The environment protects us. That’s what we have to make people see. Once the forest is gone, it’s gone.”
YOU CANNOT FATHOM the power of Asia’s largest land beast until you feel it. As we push through the jungle, mud sucking us down, fat leeches on our skin and the ever-present buzz of chainsaws in the distance, a trumpet suddenly tears through the vines.
Arjuna is a big Asian tusker; 27 years old and more than 3,000kg. His mahout, Amrizal, is 25 and a fraction of his weight. His power comes from his lungs and an unflinching self-confidence. It is hard for a novice not to betray their nerves in front of a full-sized bull elephant – even a tame one – and we are warned not to approach Arjuna head on.
“Male elephants don’t like it,” Amrizal explains. “They see it as a challenge.”
The mahout unlocks the thick chain that has held Arjuna overnight. The surrounding flat jungle looks like … an elephant has slept in it. With a command, Arjuna picks up the slack chain and hauls it in with his trunk. Another command and the elephant kneels, then rolls on to his side with a tremorous “thud” and crunch of vegetation. Arjuna lets out a guttural growl of protest.
Amrizal ignores the sound and uses a switch to sweep mud off the elephant’s hide. He gently pats Arjuna’s cheek, plucking at his long lashes as the pachyderm blinks with faint pleasure. Grooming over, Amrizal orders Arjuna to kneel so he can climb onto his back. They lumber off to join the rest of the herd.
It takes an elephant to stop an elephant, and that’s the idea behind Aceh’s national-sponsored Conservation Response Units (CRU): teams of local mahouts who capture and train problem elephants, which they use to ward off wild elephants that come into conflict with humans.
At the Mane CRU, in the highlands behind Sulaiman’s village, five elephants have left the jungle – where they are tethered each night to feed on fresh vegetation – and are being ridden to the river. The routine is the same each morning: groom, swim, train.
The valley echoes with another ear-splitting trumpet as Arjuna enters the clear mountain water. While the other four elephants – two cows, another bull and a juvenile male – settle in together, tussling and spraying each other with water, Arjuna rocks gently by himself against the current.
“Arjuna’s a stubborn elephant,” Amrizal says as he relaxes near the water. “He was difficult to train and always tried to run away. He doesn’t like the other elephants. But he’s very clever and easy to read.”
While there is clearly a rapport between Arjuna and Amrizal, the elephant’s human-like behaviour can be testing. As Amrizal rode to the river that morning, Arjuna suddenly reached up with his trunk, grabbed the mahout’s ” thotti” – a metal hook used for prodding – and flung it into the bush. Incensed, Amrizal made Arjuna search for the thotti and hand it back up to him, before hitting him on the head as punishment.
“He has to know who’s boss, or you will never control him,” says the mahout, a little embarrassed.
Life for the mahouts is isolated; they spend three out of every four weeks living in small jungle cottages, training and caring for their charges. They used to patrol the forests regularly for illegal loggers, sometimes responding to elephant conflicts in nearby villages. But the mood has changed.
“A lot of the villagers hate elephants because they raid their crops,” says Zainal, who looks after Adi, a sociable 30-year-old bull. “And they hate us, too. I feel very sad, sometimes, because when some of the villagers find a dead elephant they spread rumours that it is one of ours that has been raiding them.”
It was another CRU patrol in Ranto Sabon – five hours away – that discovered Papa Genk’s corpse. That unit was forced to close – its elephants relocated to Saree and Mane – after Yudhoyono tweeted to the nation on July 15 that there would be a full investigation into the death. The villagers blamed the CRU for bringing them trouble. The mahout who discovered Genk’s body still lives in Ranto Sabon and still receives death threats. He is too frightened to talk. Despite 20 villagers admitting to the killing – including the village chief – no one has been prosecuted.
“The mahouts are being unfairly blamed,” says Mane CRU director Hasbala. “The villagers say it’s just an elephant. But everyone knew Genk.”
Hasbala is disappointed, but philosophical. Despite setting up the Mane CRU on his own land, using his own money – such is his love of elephants – he also understands the villagers’ point of view.
“The solution is don’t issue palm-oil contracts where elephants roam,” he says. “But it’s hard to say don’t mine here or don’t develop there, because people need to eat. Development brings jobs. But we need a solution for humans and animals to co-exist. The only way to do that is to protect the forest and be smart about where we develop.”
TRACKING WILD ELEPHANTS through the jungle, marching in mud-crater footprints, a single thought comes to mind: what to do when we find them?
Led by Nalis, our guide, we return to a spot in which a herd was sighted the day before and set out early, following an elephant trail of fresh dung and flattened trees. After two hours, we find ourselves walking up a dry creek bed, flanked by dense forest.
Suddenly there is a mammoth tusked head poking out from the bush just metres ahead. The elephant – a young male – turns and flees into the jungle. There is a panicked trumpet as he alerts the others … and that’s it, the one and only time I see a wild Sumatran elephant.
Elephants share the jungle with tigers. They have no natural predators, yet I cannot help thinking their learned fear of man is more telling than our ingrained fear of them.
ROSA WANTS TO PLAY. She’s like a dog. A 200kg dog with a tail at each end. But she’s small for a 12-month-old Asiatic elephant. The stress of being raised and moved from one sanctuary to another has taken its toll. Behind Rosa, mother Suci is flapping her ears in agitation. In the wild, this would be a warning sign. But at the government-run Saree Elephant Clinic, about an hour’s drive from Banda Aceh, Suci can only tug at her chains and watch.
The elephant relaxes as a familiar figure approaches. Vet Rosa Rika Wahyuni is careful not to encourage little Rosa to leave her mother’s side until Suci recognises her. Elephants have a fantastic sense of smell, but their eyesight is poor.
It’s no coincidence little Rosa and Wahyuni share the same name: the baby elephant was delivered by the vet and named after her. Wahyuni also knew Rosa’s sire, Genk.
“He only stole a bit of food. He didn’t destroy the village. He didn’t deserve to die like that,” she says.
It’s been a stressful few months for the elephants, but also an emotional time for the vet. In the preceding six weeks, five Aceh elephants were killed or died of neglect, including two orphaned calves held to ransom by villagers.
The refuge in Saree is flat, dry and has little vegetation. Four tamed elephants are housed here, including an adult female, Amoy, and a young orphaned male, Agam.
Agam is only a month younger than Rosa, but is lean and weak. Elephants may be social creatures, but mothers almost never share their milk with calves that are not theirs. Wahyuni says there is no way to extract the vital fluid from Suci, so Agam is being raised on a diet of soya milk, supplements and antibiotics. Without natural milk, his immune system will not develop properly and it will be harder to keep him alive.
“Everyone calls him Agam, but to me he will always be Aneuk – my ‘son’,” Wahyuni smiles. “They said he couldn’t be saved – he was sick and depressed after his mother died – but he’s doing better. We tried to socialise him with the other elephants, but they all rejected him.
“I know Saree isn’t a good place for the elephants. There’s no river, nowhere to bathe and no natural food for them. But I hope the government can help us move them somewhere else like Mane. It has everything elephants need.”
And that is the story of these animals’ lives. Pushed from their natural forests, shunted from refuge to refuge, they are fast running out of places to go. What’s left of their environment is slowly being poised by mercury and, Wahyuni believes, it’s just a matter of time before it affects the wild elephants’ fertility and health.
“I hope you can help us,” she starts to cry: “I’m so emotional. I don’t know why.”