Sumatran elephants get help from virtual zoo keepers

Fauna & Flora International’s (FFI) Sumatran elephant conservation work is set to receive a very welcome boost thanks to the players and developers of virtual zoo-keeping game Zoo Tycoon.

Available on Xbox 360 and Xbox One, Zoo Tycoon lets players create their own zoo layouts, adopt and interact with animals and even collaborate with friends online to manage their zoo through Xbox Live.

The game is designed not only to entertain but also to educate players about the animals under their virtual care in a fun and engaging way. What’s more, players can also look after these animals in the real-world by taking part in ‘community challenges’ issued by Microsoft Studios.

So how does the challenge work?

Each month, players are invited to vote for a real-world conservation project. Once a winner is selected, the game’s online community must meet a challenge – if they succeed, Microsoft will donate US$10,000 to their chosen cause.

In May, over 1,600 players voted for FFI’s Sumatran elephant conservation project to receive support and were challenged to build 6,000 temperate forest large exhibits to help protect Sumatran elephants in the wild.

They rose to the challenge and we are pleased to say that FFI has now received the grant, which is being put to good use to help protect Sumatra’s forest giants.

Jonny Watts from Frontier Developments – the company that develops Zoo Tycoon – said, “I was so happy when the FFI community challenge came to fruition, and I am amazingly proud to see the industry I work in give something back to the subject I studied at university.”

Forced evictions lead to conflict – even in the natural world

As its name suggests, the Sumatran elephant is found only on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. It is a subspecies of the Asian elephant, and is listed by the IUCN as Critically Endangered.

In just 25 years (a single generation), Sumatran elephants have lost almost 70% of suitable habitat, primarily as a result of forest conversion for agriculture.

With their natural habitat disappearing, these animals are increasingly coming into conflict with people, gaining a reputation as crop raiders and dangerous pests, and a great many elephants have been captured or killed in response to the problem.

To help deal with this issue, in 2002 FFI and partners established a number of Conservation Response Units in areas experiencing high levels of conflict. These units consist of rescued elephants and their handlers, government forest rangers and community rangers, many of whom are ex-combatants or re-trained illegal loggers and poachers.

Sumatran elephant and handler. Credit: Ian Wood.

Sumatran elephant and handler. Credit: Ian Wood.

The teams are able to respond quickly and safely to human-elephant conflict situations, and over the last couple of years have prevented over a hundred incidents. Around 460 households are thought to have benefited from their efforts to prevent elephants damaging crops.

The Conservation Response Units also work to tackle wider conservation issues, with regular elephant patrols to monitor illegal logging sending a clear message that these forests are being guarded.

Thanks to the high degree of trust that the Conservation Response Units have built with communities, many local people are now helping to conserve their forests. In 2012 and 2013 community ranger teams covered over 8,500 km through forest patrols and removed 82 illegal snares.

Alongside all of this, the Conservation Response Units also support FFI’s wider work in Sumatra, helping people to develop sustainable livelihoods that can operate, without conflict, in areas where wild elephants are present.