Saturday, May 12, 2012

With the Elephants

This past week I made my way down to Mukomuko to visit an activist friend in Sungai Ipuh.  Previously another friend had invited me to visit the Seblat Elephant Conservation Center, one of nine elephant camps on the island of Sumatra.  The elephant camp is located in the district of North Bengkulu, about 3 hours south of Sungai Ipuh.  Since I was in the neighborhood, I decided to stop by the elephant camp for a few days.  To get there I had to drive over gravel roads for about 25 kilometers (evidently there's a grand total of one sealed road in the whole province of Bengkulu), park my bike, and then cross the Seblat river in a dugout canoe.  The trip was definitely worth it, though, as I had the opportunity to help bathe the elephants and participate in their training.  I even got to drive an elephant, which is harder than it looks.

The Seblat Elephant Conservation Center

The center I visited was established in the early 1990s as a response to increasing human-elephant conflicts in Southwest Sumatra.  Most of these conflicts stem from diminishing habitat; as farmers and oil palm plantations expand the area under cultivation and open up new fields where there had previously been forest the space left for the elephants decreases.  Elephants are not shy about raiding crops, and they really like eating palm oil palms, and so in many places they come to be viewed as a pest and hazard by local folks.  Elephant conservation centers (ECC) are theoretically places where elephants can be trained to avoid inhabited areas.  They also provide a place where injured or sick elephants can receive treatment.

The Seblat ECC currently has 19 elephants who are cared for by 29 mahouts (keepers) who mostly come from the villages surrounding the elephant camp.  There is also a small support staff there and a vet (my friend) who generally spends a couple of weeks a month at the camp.  The ECC, which is the only one of the nine elephant camps on Sumatra that still has a significant amount of forested area (the camp is around 8000 hectares total), is also home to forest pigs, mousedeer, Sumatran tigers, hornbills, and other wildlife. 

While at the elephant camp I got the chance to visit with a group of three folks visiting from Australia (one of them was a New Zealander living in Australia) who had come to help care for a baby elephant named Bona.  Bona was rescued from a trap in early 2011 and was brought to the camp for care.  At that time there were no signs of the two-year-old elephant's mother, and she was in really bad shape and not expected to live.  Fortunately for Bona word of her plight spread to Australia, where my three new friends (Bruce, Murray, and Amanda), all formally employed at the Australian Zoo, decided to take action.  They began a fundraising campaign to buy medicine and nutritional supplements.  When I met them they told me how Bona's plight has drawn attention around the world.  They also told me about the difficulties they faced actually getting the medicine and nutritional supplements to the camp.  As a result of their efforts, Bona is doing a lot better and has been "adopted" by one of the resident female elephants.  My new friends are having the time of their lives caring for the baby elephant; every morning they wake up early to prepare her meals and they spend a good part of the day taking care of her.  If you'd like to follow their adventure you can read their blog by clicking here.  

The Politics of the Elephant Camp

Sumatra's elephant camps fall under the authority of the Forestry Ministry's bureau of natural resource conservation.  Though the Seblat camp is located near Kerinci Seblat National Park, it is separated by an area designated as production forest (which hasn't been utilized yet) and thus is about 1.5 kilometers outside the boundary of the park.  Since the elephants would have to traverse the production forest to get to or from the park, there is always the possibility of human-animal conflict.  To address this problem the ECC and its supervising agency several years ago proposed the establishment of a forested corridor which would connect the elephant camp to the park.  The proposal was rejected for unspecified reasons, but an examination of the "political ecology" of the elephant camp sheds some light. 

The major "problem" with the elephant camp is that it sits on land that is thought to contain significant coal reserves.  Indeed, there are a number of coal mines in the vicinity, and the night sky is always illuminated by the high-wattage lights used so that mining can continue 24/7.  The district and provincial governments get a chunk of the mining, but what is more important than the official payments are the informal payments (bribes) and benefits that get channeled to political leaders ranging from the governor on down to heads of villages.  Although the district and provincial governments would like to move (or close down) the elephant camp, they can't because it's under the jurisdiction of the national government.  So what has happened here (this is pretty common around the park in my experience) is that the local, district, and provincial officials find ways to undermine the elephant camp through neglect or even underhanded, back-room dealings. 

In the map I've provided above you can see the layout of the ECC and it's relationship to the park.  I've also indicated the proposed (and rejected) corridor that would have linked the two areas.  Lastly I've indicated an area just outside the ECC but between the ECC and the park where 400 households have established an illegal settlement in the production forest.  These people are not locals; they come from the vicinity of Tapan which is in another province to the north.  They have "bought" the land from the head of one of the villages near the ECC.  The village head coordinated bringing the people in and has issued certificates of ownership, but he has absolutely no legal authority to do this because the land is far outside his village.  This makes the whole endeavor completely illegal and in violation of numerous laws, but the district and provincial governments, though frowning upon the illegal settlement, have made no efforts to address the situation.

The reason for this is that the presence of the illegal settlement makes any potential corridor between the park and the elephant camp impossible, and though the ECC's initial proposal was rejected there's no guarantee that the issue won't come up again.  The district and provincial governments have petitioned the Ministry of Forestry to move the camp because they want to grant mining leases on the land.  Thus from their point of view anything that is bad for the elephant camp is good for them, because it strengthens their argument that the camp should be moved.  Removing the wildlife corridor from the picture makes the camp less effective so the district and provincial government turn a blind eye to the settlers.

In addition the provincial government has violated national law by granting permission to mining companies to do exploration in the elephant camp.  A couple of years ago the former governor of Bengkulu province (who is now in prison for corruption) signed a letter authorizing a mining survey of the elephant camp.  Normally the camp is periodically patrolled by rangers who attempt to prevent logging, poaching, and other extractive activities (a survey is an extractive activity and thus illegal), but in this case officials within the Forestry department received calls from a couple of generals and highly-placed police officers "asking" them to allow the mining survey.  The team went in and took coordinates and samples which would later be used in proposals and other material used to attract investors.  In the picture you can see the actual list of coordinates, which pretty exactly match up with the boundaries of the elephant camp, signed by the former governor of Bengkulu.  This document, of course, is pretty clear evidence of illegal activities.  I've also included a map below from the same set of documents.  There doesn't seem to be anyone in the elephant camp's camp on this matter, though, as everyone not involved in the maintenance and care of elephants seems to have accepted that moving or closing the camp is a foregone conclusion.

Although one of my responsibilities as a researcher is to remain neutral, it is a bit sad to see things play out this way.  I know the dedication of my friends at the elephant camp, who work for pretty paltry salaries but still love their jobs.  For their part they are trying to work closely with the village heads around the camp to increase awareness and to illustrate the potential value of the camp.  They are working to develop tourism packages and are exploring ways in which local communities could be involved, thus provided tangible benefits to the communities around the park.  Unfortunately the deck seems to be stacked against them, because when bupatis and governors smell money they tend to ignore local folks.  

1 comment:

  1. It restores my faith in humanity to know that there are people fighting against the corrupt big-wigs who do not seem to care about our environment. The need for this wildlife sanctuary is obvious, as stated above. However, too many corrupt governments who see dollar signs instead of long term benefit will try to dig in for a slice.