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Indonesia uses love and war to rein in wild elephants

Trainers deploy the Flying Squad, a tamed herd, to face off or mate with aggressive pachyderms as a way to keep them from straying and rampaging beyond the confines of their forest sanctuary.

December 02, 2009|By John M. Glionna
  • A handler washes an elephant, whose calf is beside them, at Tesso Nilo park. At least once a month, wild herds from the park attack one of the nearby settlements.
A handler washes an elephant, whose calf is beside them, at Tesso Nilo park.… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Tesso Nilo National Park, Indonesia — The wild bull elephant stood menacingly in the clearing, trumpeting in annoyance and anger, its brain racing with a chemical that unleashes a throbbing and unceasing headache.

It was the heart of mating season, and the bull was desperately seeking a mate.

Was this really a good moment to be sitting on top of another elephant just a few hundred feet away?

But Syamsuardi, a native of the wild Sumatran forest, had his strategy ready: He would pit his own elephant against the amorous stranger.

The compact 37-year-old, who like many Indonesians goes by one name, manages the Flying Squad, a herd of tamed elephants that patrols the more than 200,000-acre park like jungle Guardian Angels.

In many nations, dwindling forests have brought deadly conflict between man and animal. In Sumatra, rampaging elephants that have wandered out of parks and into populated areas have long been shot or poisoned by officials or vengeful property owners.

Syamsuardi's team is the local brainchild of the World Wildlife Fund, which borrowed the idea from India. The goal: persuade the intruders to simply get lost, to return to their sanctuary, where lethal run-ins with humans are far less likely.

With the Flying Squad, brute force isn't the only option.

The team sometimes dispatches a female to mate with the aggressor, a tactic that has not only defused tension but also produced two offspring from the wild elephants: Tesso and Nella.

But confronting the angry bull, Syamsuardi sensed this showdown wouldn't end so easily.

Perched atop Rachman, the Flying Squad leader, he and the other mahouts, or handlers, positioned two males and two females side by side, never taking their eyes off the intruder. Then they moved slowly forward, a multi-ton battering ram, with each handler atop his elephant, awaiting the big bull's charge.

Syamsuardi recalled the terror of knowing he'd be exposed to piercing tusks and the collisions of gigantic bodies. Caught in the middle, he would be crushed like an insect.

"It's tense, but you must be calm and stay quiet," he said. "I have to be ready to think quickly because when the time comes, my elephants are waiting for my command."

Elephants are losing the battle over the vanishing jungle.

The forests that once covered Sumatra's Riau province -- home to the largest elephant population in Indonesia -- are disappearing.

In the last 20 years alone, the paper and palm oil industries have cut down 60% of the pachyderm habitat. Now just 10% of the remaining forest is suitable for elephants. Since 1985, the province's elephant population has plummeted to 350 from 1,600. About 80 elephants live within Tesso Nilo National Park.

At least once a month, wild herds from the park attack one of the nearby settlements, activists say. Since 2007, 13 elephants and several residents have been killed in Riau province alone.

"If given a choice, elephants would prefer never to see humans," Syamsuardi said. "But the problem is that humans continue to invade their territory. There's not enough jungle left."

In 2004, after a rash of animal rampages, Syamsuardi began his monumental task: shape a team of wild animals into an obedient police force.

Then a World Wildlife Fund outreach worker, he knew little about elephants. So he began reading up on the animals and working with them in the field.

Now he and his staff of eight handlers foster a bond with their elephant wards. For mahouts such Adrianto, 26, it means a soothing voice interspersed with strict commands.

One day, Adrianto took the 26-year-old Ria and her 2-year-old calf, Tesso, for a bath in a forest watering hole. Ria trudged though the jungle, grabbing leaves with her trunk, her feet leaving large craters in the soft dirt.

At the murky pond, she waded into the water like a four-legged sumo wrestler, with Adrianto on her back. As the animals luxuriated in the cool water, their trunks shooting quick bursts of water, Adrianto scrubbed their backs, talking softly in Indonesian.

"Don't be naughty," he told Tesso, who nudged him with a forehead sprouting unruly black hairs. Then he pushed the baby's head underwater and scrubbed behind its ears.

"Ria is an actress," he said later, perched comfortably on her neck as though riding a big movable easy chair. "She pouts unless she gets what she wants."

The mahouts treat obedient animals to brownies. But there are sticks that come with such carrots. When Ria resists, Adrianto whacks her hard on the head with a small stick with a metal end that he uses for discipline. Tesso gets a stick shoved into his ear when he gets too frisky.

Before a routine patrol, Syamsuardi showered affection on Ria, rubbing her cheek and neck. He has grown to love these big animals and fears for their future.

"They're incredibly loyal," he said. "When a mahout falls during a fight with a wild bull, the herd will surround him in protection."

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