THE SUMATRAN ELEPHANTS: ANOTHER CLOSE CALL
It is indeed an indictment of us and our humanity when the number of animals featuring on the endangered list mounts faster than mercury on a hot summer afternoon. By 2030 we will be an elite race making preparations that will allow us to conquer neighboring planets and stars! The scenario at home however will remain bleak if we do not let go of avarice. We were handed this planet to share with our animal friends and we have emerged as selfish trespassers. The concept of tolerance that the world governments have enshrined somehow seems circumscribed by the definition of human. The fact that after the Sumatran tiger in 2008, it is now the turn of the Sumatran elephant to be labeled “critically endangered” bears testament to the inadequacy of our endeavors and our gross selfishness!
The Elephas maximus sumatranus or the Sumatran elephant is a majestic creature. It can stand up to 9 feet tall at the shoulders and inhabits the broadleaf moist tropical forests of Sumatra. And it is an important part of the equation that keeps the forest environment healthy and thriving. The Sumatran elephant consumes copious amounts of vegetation in a day and it deposits a variety of seeds wherever it goes thus playing gardener to god’s forests. It has been seen through empirical data that the presence of an elephant community in the vicinity ensures the welfare of the other animals and in this case each of these animals shares space with the Sumatran elephant on the endangered list.
But all this cannot begin to make us comprehend the dire straits this beautiful creature is in. For that we need to understand its temperament. Elephants are social creatures. They have a high degree of intelligence and a good memory. They are also very affectionate and frequently the young ones are seen frolicking with each other or trotting obediently behind their mothers holding on to their tails for support and guidance. Very much like a human mother, a female elephant can lay down her life for the safety of her offspring. This unfortunately is a common occurrence. The illegal animals trade is a vicious and close knit business and these baby elephants fetch a handsome price for some high roller to have the distinction of showcasing an endangered Sumatran Elephant in his private zoo. Close on the heels of this dilemma comes poaching. Despite stringent security measures which the Sumatran Government tries to implement, poaching is an ever present danger. Though the Sumatran elephant has smaller tusks than its African counterparts, the prohibitive cost of ivory makes them lucrative to the poachers who wish to make a double killing with a prize baby elephant and the tusks of a bull. In one cruel perfectly plotted move, a herd is left bereft of babies and males. This not only affects the present population but future chances of recovery are hampered by the missing males. To mate naturally both the sexes are needed. Conservationists can envision another “Matschie’s tree-kangaroo” stunt wherein this rare species has been bred in captivity since the 1070s because of lack of conducive and livable habitat in the wild. Even this possible scheme has a hitch-Elephants don’t breed well in captivity. They are choosy about who they mate with and their gestation period is very long, between 18 to 22 months. Furthermore there is only one calf per pregnancy. These obstacles spell it very clearly: “Saving the Sumatran elephant in the wild is the only feasible way of ensuring it doesn’t become extinct!”
And that brings us to the next demon- Urbanization. Poaching is detrimental to the growth of the Sumatran elephant population but in this case it is not the biggest evil. Human greed trumps it. Since the natural habitat of these elephants can play such a crucial role in its survival, there should be every effort possible to conserve it. Sumatra has experienced an epic almost exponential increase in the rate of deforestation over the last few decades. Almost two-thirds of the available natural lowland which is the preferred habitat of the Sumatran elephant has been razed to accommodate growing human needs of space or timber. These gentle giants who live in matriarchal herds have lost 70% of their population in one generation!! The wild population has fallen to a scant 2800.Further exacerbating their misery is the tyranny of the Palm oil plantations. Because of the high demand of grade quality palm oil, more than 75% of the elephant’s habitat has disappeared in the Riau province alone. These plantations leave land acarpous and inhospitable for elephant herds!
The remaining pachyderms have an uphill battle facing them. Because of human-elephant conflict accidental deaths contribute to the declining population. When elephants come in close contact with humans, material destruction is inevitable. This is part of the way elephants function, trampling large areas to get to what they want. It is programmed in them genetically and humans in their ignorance or because of the survival instinct view them as threats. The Sumatran elephant plagued by the destruction of its habitat and hunger rushes to human colonies where it is stoned or shot. For doing what any living being will do when pushed to the absolute limit! Sometimes while crossing the railway tracks which are unfamiliar objects crisscrossing their lands, they are involved in accidents that leave them dead or mutilated. Many foreign factors oppressing them and the stress of trying to survive have somehow degraded the fertility of the Sumatran elephants. The Lampung province had only two biologically viable herds as of 2002. And this might be a death knell for the dreams of a recovery in the wild.
It is a very precarious situation, to say the least. We need to act fast and extend a helping hand if our children are to see the beauty and wonder of the Sumatran elephants. The critically endangered status is just one below the “Extinct in the wild” in the structure of threat assessment that the IUCN Red List uses to categorize fauna. In 2011, the Sumatran elephant joined the list. The only silver lining is the fact that the inclusion is relatively recent and in view of the long life span of elephants, it is possible that the efforts of many dedicated groups have already started making a difference which will become notable in the coming years. The biggest push has been provided by the WWF. It has seriously called for the oblivious Indonesian government to designate large patches of land for the explicit purpose of the protected existence of Sumatran elephants. And if the push is significant, the government will buckle.
The Veterinary Society for Sumatran Wildlife Conservation (Vesswic) is a registered non-profit organization founded in 2003 by a group of Sumatran veterinarians who are trying to implement cost effective betterment solutions in Sumatra for the elephants. This program in turn is whole heartedly supported by Asian Elephant Support. The IEF (International Elephant Foundation) though not Sumatran has funded and organized a number of trips to the Sumatran Elephant Conservation Centers (ECC) to deliver medical supplies and provide training to the staff so that lack of funding and know how don’t result in further losses of elephant life. The Frankfurt Zoological Society has also opened up a number of Elephant Conflict Mitigation Units (ECMUs) which work to help elephants and humans co-exist in harmony. If this is achieved, it will be like treating the root cause instead of symptoms and can usher in a golden era of human-animal habitation. Science which can be seen as a culprit in this fiasco is also willing to make amends. The Eijkman Institute for Molecular Biology and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Indonesia have agreed to collaborate on molecular genetics-based research projects which can reveal useful data pertaining to distribution and demographics of the Sumatran elephant aiding conservation attempts. All in all awareness has spread at an unprecedented rate. With the omnipresent internet proclaiming the message of conservation and its need, more and more people are expected to pitch in and support the cause of the Sumatran elephants.
“Elephants love reunions. They recognize one another after years and years of separation and greet each other with wild, boisterous joy. There’s bellowing and trumpeting, ear flapping and rubbing. Trunks entwine.”
― Jennifer Richard Jacobson, Small as an Elephant
All elephants have remarkable human qualities as the quote says. They are scared and lonely, in need of some humanity. We profess to possess the most of it. Hence if we can help the Sumatran elephants battle it out, it will be a victory for everything that is divine in us. These marvelous creatures deserve better than just a line in a history book. They deserve to tread the paths we do and welcome the future with us!