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Indonesia's Giants Lend a Trunk to Tsunami Victims

Elephants clearing debris in Sumatra do machines' heavy lifting with a sensitive touch.

January 22, 2005|Barbara Demick | Times Staff Writer

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia — Up until now, Medang's life basically had been a series of circus tricks.

The 48-year-old bull elephant knew how to kick balls and put wreaths of flowers around people's necks. He could stand on his hind legs. He delighted children with his antics at a wildlife park on the northern part of Sumatra island.

But the Dec. 26 earthquake and tsunami ended that life of frivolity. Medang and five other Asiatic elephants have been enlisted to search for bodies and clean up wreckage in Banda Aceh. The elephants were pressed into service because of the initial lack of backhoes and tractors in this stricken city.

Even though heavy equipment has since arrived as part of an outpouring of support from the international community, the elephants have kept their new jobs. They are not so easily replaced by technology: The machines can't easily replicate the sure-footedness of the elephant's gait or the dexterity of its long trunk.

"They're very good at this. The elephant's sense of smell is much better than a human's. Their trunk can get right into small spaces and lift the rubble," said Nazarruddin, an elephant handler who was leading one of the teams. Like many Indonesians, he goes by one name.

In Banda Aceh, the elephants have been working mainly in a residential neighborhood within a mile of the shore. Houses in this area were gutted but not completely flattened, as happened at the beachfront. The elephants must step over half-destroyed walls and mangled sheets of corrugated metal, or walk gingerly across platforms of concrete, skills not so unlike their circus tricks.

On a rainy afternoon, as almost all afternoons are in Banda Aceh, the elephants were excavating a partially collapsed house. It appeared to have been a rather nice house, judging from the accouterments of middle-class life -- a washing machine, a nice leather briefcase -- that were strewn in the rubble.

Guided by his mahout, or driver, Medang maneuvered his trunk into a crevice in what appeared to have been a supporting wall. Then up came his big head, with the trunk wrapped around a 4-foot-long slab of concrete studded with metal reinforcing rods and squares of tile.

"Look at what this elephant can do! He's the strongest," boasted Zulkarnan, the mahout, who was atop the giant animal, his legs folded over the head and his feet tucked behind the ears.

"But Nonik is the smartest," interjected another driver, Sufian, referring to the 35-year-old female elephant he was riding. He claimed that his elephant, "being female and still a virgin," was the most sensitive and careful of the pack, although she could lift only 2 tons to Medang's 3.

In fact, the elephants work as a team, so there is room for talent other than brute strength. The more careful elephants help to extricate bodies from the wreckage, a delicate task since the remains are now badly decomposed.

The elephants don't touch the bodies; they gingerly lift whatever has collapsed on top so that a volunteer can remove the remains.

The handlers say the animals do not seem bothered by the devastation or death. "The elephant is not really an emotional animal. The only time an elephant shows emotion is when he is in passion," said Nazarruddin.

The animals have also been put to work towing cars.

One of Medang's jobs the other day was to remove a tree and several beams that had fallen on a blue Toyota. As soon as the car was freed, it was attached to a chain harness fitted around the shoulders and front legs of another male, Rachmat. Men hopped in the car to steer as the elephant began to pull.

The dull thud of the elephant's footsteps and the scraping of the chassis through the wreckage made a tremendous sound. But before long, the Toyota was on a main street being inspected with satisfaction by its owner.

"I couldn't find a tow truck. And it would have been too expensive anyway," said the car's owner, Firdaus, 29. He paid about $14 for the service.

The Asiatic elephant is indigenous to Indonesia's Sumatra island, where Banda Aceh is, but they are rarely seen here nowadays outside of logging sites or nature preserves. The sight of an elephant towing a car attracts stares and sometimes a smile, which is equally a rarity in a city where nearly one-third of the population has been killed.

"Somehow I felt like these elephants could do some good," said Andi Basrul, the 46-year-old director of the nature preserve in Saree, 40 miles away, where the elephants normally are kept.

He is among the many people in Banda Aceh trapped in a limbo between bereavement and uncertainty. His wife and 11-year-old daughter, who were at their home near the beach, have been missing since the tsunami.

"The more we work the better it is to overcome our memories of the past," said Basrul, disheveled and unshaven, as he chain-smoked clove cigarettes at a makeshift office near where the elephants were working.

The preserve has had more than its share of problems. It was originally in spacious grounds in the northern Sumatran city of Lhokseumawe, but had to leave in 1999 because of fighting between the army and separatist rebels. Although the elephants are occasionally used in logging or circus acts, they have been underemployed since the move.

After the tsunami struck, Basrul loaded the animals into trucks and drove them down from the mountains to Banda Aceh. The first place he brought the elephants was his own house. They uncovered a cabinet that contained about $200 and a prized collection of Acehnese daggers that Basrul had been keeping since he was a boy.

There was no trace, however, of his wife and daughter.

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