Humans and wild Sumatran elephants are engaged in a fierce conflict in the Indonesian province of Aceh. To mediate between the two groups, 31 tamed pachyderms have been enlisted in a bid to prevent the species' extinction.
Since 2007, between 700 and 1,100 elephants have died because of human activity such as road expansion, plantations – especially palm oil crops – and settlements, which have reduced and infringed upon the habitats of countless animals in the lush region.
According to the latest official count, in 2014 there were 1,724 wild elephants left on the island of Sumatra, around 500 of which were located in Aceh, an area rich in biodiversity located at the western end of the Indonesian archipelago.
Tensions between co-habiting farmers and elephant are on the rise; and the latter have got everything to lose.
Sapto Aji Prabowoto, the head of Indonesia's conservation agency BKSDA for Aceh, said that 11 wild elephants were killed in the province last year and 12 in 2017, most of them through poisoning or traps set by farmers and – to a lesser extent – poachers.
"They consider elephants as pests, and pests can be eradicated. They use electrified fences, poison, nets – these are the main threats," Sapto explained.
In Sampoiniet district, about three hours from the provincial capital Banda Aceh, farmer Muhamad Din waited for Conservation Response Unit teams while surrounded by banana trees that had been destroyed by wild elephants.
Muhamad, who works on the community-owned plantation, admitted that the area was located on one of the traditional elephant routes but described the loss of a big part of the crops as an injustice and said he could not help but get angry.
"I think they come here for food," said the father of six, estimating the value of the losses at about 1 million rupiah (around $71), which is nearly half of what the farmers make from a full harvest.
To address the problem, the CRU – a BKSDA initiative – decided in 2008 to use trained elephants to ward off their wild counterparts from residential areas, thus avoiding clashes between the two species.
These mammoth forest guards are employed in seven centers in Aceh province and, if required, they are sent directly towards the wild elephants to guide them out of conflict zones or check them if they become aggressive.
Similar programs have been initiated in the provinces of Bengkulu, Riau and Lampung.
However, this conflict prevention work is not without risks. Ida, a more than 50-year-old elephant, died after being severely wounded in February by a group of wild pachyderms when she went to help residents of Neger Antara in northern Aceh.
"There have been several cases where our elephants have been attacked, but never this severely," Sapto told EFE.
For each elephant, the CRUs have a mahout – the person in charge of looking after and guiding the animals – and an assistant, both of whom are often heirs to the long tradition of taming elephants in Aceh.
Safardin, a mahout at the CRU in Sampoiniet, has been training elephants in Sumatra since he was a teenager and has seen their numbers fall sharply in recent decades.
However, for the 39-year-old mahout, losing Ida – with whom he shared a special bond – was "particularly harsh."
Safardin explained that when villagers report wild elephants in their area, or when GPS collars installed by the CRU show groups near populated areas, the first measure usually involves trying to drive them away using fire or explosive devices.
The head of the CRU in Sampoiniet, Samsul Riza, said that in his area they have used tame elephants to scare away their wild counterparts just on two occasions so far this year, whereas the rest of the time they carry out patrols or conduct awareness work.
Riza said that the poor state of roads, the vast territory under his charge and scarce resources impeded the herculean task of ensuring the survival of the Sumatran elephant.
Despite the immediate need, the guards in Sampoiniet have had problems with locals over delays in responding to emergencies or for reporting their illegal activities to the authorities.
"The biggest challenge is the mentality of the society, especially farmers," said Riza. "The most difficult part when working with elephants are humans." EFE-EPA