Elephant heroes remembered a decade on from an unforgettable disaster

– Hasballah, Fauna & Flora International’s Conservation Response Unit Coordinator in Mane, Aceh.

On Boxing Day in 2004, one of the biggest earthquakes in recorded history created a tsunami that caused widespread devastation, with the Indonesian island of Sumatra one of the worst hit areas.

As the waters retreated, the town of Banda Aceh on Sumatra’s northern tip was left in ruins. The streets were filled with mud and the debris of destroyed houses, cars and uprooted trees. Cleaning up the mess was a daunting task and took many months.

Museum exhibit. Credit: Jeremy Holden/FFI.

An exhibit in Aceh's Tsunami Museum shows the extent of the devastation. Credit: Jeremy Holden/FFI.

At the time, Fauna & Flora International (FFI) was one of the few international NGOs working in Aceh and lost two members of staff to the disaster. Being on the ground meant we were among the first to respond, with a relief team in action soon after.

Motorbike under rubble. Credit: Helene Barnes/FFI.

The tsunami left roads blocked and motorised vehicles buried under rubble. Credit: Helene Barnes/FFI.

With roads blocked and access impossible by foot and vehicle, people turned to rescued elephants for help. Strong, mobile and already trained, they were ideally suited to the task of reclaiming the devastated city.

Ten years later, some of those same elephants are still helping to make Aceh a better place, for both people and wildlife.

Responding to conflict

In 2009, at the remote outpost of Mane in Pidie, central Aceh, FFI established a Conservation Response Unit (CRU) after heeding calls for help from the local community to deal with conflicts between people and wild elephants.

These conflicts arise mainly when elephants – which are being squeezed out of their natural habitat by human development – raid plantations that include crops they find irresistible, such as sugar cane and fruit.

Using five domestic elephants, some of which came into captivity because of former conflict issues, the CRU teams successfully dealt with problems between local communities and wild elephants.

CRU patrol. Credit: Jeremy Holden/FFI.

The Conservation Response Unit on patrol in Mane. Credit: Jeremy Holden/FFI.

“Conservationists have long realised that the long-term survival of wild elephants in Sumatra requires that elephants and people co-exist with minimal conflict,” said FFI’s Dr Matthew Linkie. “The CRU concept involves captive elephants and their mahouts (handlers) supporting the conservation of wild elephants and their habitat and aims to promote a positive attitude to both captive and wild elephants in the region.”

“There are an estimated 80-100 elephants in the Ulu Masen forest,” said Hasballah, Coordinator of the Mane CRU. “At present the primary threat these animals face arises from human-elephant conflict, a familiar scenario wherever human and elephant landscapes meet. Angry locals are quick to poison wild elephants if they become a problem, so we need to address this if we are going to maintain wild elephants in Aceh.”

FFI has now approached the District Government of Pidie to take over the continued operations of the CRU in Mane, in cooperation with wildlife rescue unit BKSDA (the Nature Resources Conservation Agency).