Picture for representation
Picture for representation Reuters

While the world is busy studying, filming and conserving the majestic African elephant, their Asian cousins, the Sumatran elephants, are facing catastrophic decline, which, unfortunately, remains less documented even today.

International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) listed this subspecies of Asian elephant, which was already categorised as endangered, under the Red List for critically endangered species in 2012.

According to Wildlife Conservation Society, the decline in the number of the elephants, which mostly populated the lowland forest of Sumatra in province of Riau, West Sumatra, and Lampung, is mainly due to poaching for their ivory tusks, depletions of their natural habitat because of encroachment of oil palm plantations into forest area and man-animal conflicts, which generally end with killing the elephant. Forests are also being cut down due to unregulated and illegal logging, which force the elephants to venture into crop fields in search of food and bring them in direct clash with the farmers.

Check out these photos which perfectly captures the challenges faced by the Sumatran elephants:

Under Siege

Way Kambas National Park
The irresistible image of a young Sumatran elephant in Way Kambas National Park, Sumatra. Paul Hilton for WCS

Up in Smoke

Leuser Ecosystem, Sumatra
A fire burns in the Leuser Ecosystem, Sumatra. This is the last place on earth where elephants, tigers, rhinos and orangutans all still coexist under the same forest canopy. The land here will be cleared to make way for oil palm plantations forcing wildlife, including Critically Endangered Sumatran elephants, to live in ever-shrinking habitat. Paul Hilton for WCS

Habitat No More

Leuser Ecosystem clearing
Bulldozers clear some of the last tracts of lowland forest in the Leuser Ecosystem – an area that once served as prime habitat for elephants and other flagship species such tigers, rhinos and orangutans. Expanding human development and the resulting habitat loss and fragmentation continue to contribute to elephant decline. Paul Hilton for WCS
Bulldozers clear some of the last tracts of lowland forest in the Leuser Ecosystem – an area that once served as prime habitat for elephants and other flagship species such tigers, rhinos and orangutans. Expanding human development and the resulting habitat loss and fragmentation continue to contribute to elephant decline.Paul Hilton for WCS

Vanishing act

Illegal logging
Illegal logging destroys wildlife habitat and encroaches on elephant migration routes. Here, an illegal logger sits outside a makeshift hut knocked over by a herd of elephants. The WCS Forest Crimes Unit has been partnering with the Ministry of Environment and Forestry and provincial police to tackle illegal logging since 2015. For Way Kambas and Gunung Leuser national parks, this partnership worked to arrest 21 illegal loggers through 10 operations conducted in 2016. Paul Hilton for WCS

All that remains

Poaching
Bones of a dead elephant and the poacher's snare that killed it. Missing are its ivory tusks which are illegal to sell because this species is protected under Indonesian law. With less than 2000 of the animals remaining across all of Sumatra, the sixth largest island in the world, every lost elephant is significant. Paul Hilton for WCS
Bones of a dead elephant and the poacher's snare that killed it. Missing are its ivory tusks which are illegal to sell because this species is protected under Indonesian law. With less than 2000 of the animals remaining across all of Sumatra, the sixth largest island in the world, every lost elephant is significant.Paul Hilton for WCS

Cruel irony

Ivory items
Items carved from the ivory of poached Sumatran elephants are contributing to the decline of the species. Here, carvings sit in a shop in Tampaksiring Bali. Bali has been the major center for carving ivory in Indonesia for many years, given the talent of creative people on the famous tourist island. However, much of the ivory sold here is actually from African elephants, a species not domestically protected on the government of Indonesia's protected species list. To address this law enforcement loop hole, WCS has been providing support to the Ministry of Environment and Forestry which is in the process of upgrading its Protected Species List and overarching wildlife law. The positive changes will include, for example: a significant expansion of the number of species protected by law, which will ensure that Indonesia continues to meet its CITES commitments; the introduction of a minimum sentence and increased fines for the poaching of protected species; and, the listing of non-native species such as African elephants as protected species. Paul Hilton for WCS

In the nick of time

Elephant rescue
Field veterinarians from the Syiah Kuala University's Center for Wildlife Studies together with Leuser Conservation Forum (FKL) work to save the leg, and the life, of a sedated elephant released from a poacher's snare. Thankfully, the vets have arrived before the animal succumbed to its wounds or the poachers that placed the snare returned. Paul Hilton for WCS

Post-op

Ailing elephant
Treated and bandaged, a Sumatran elephant continues to feel the effects of sedation before again roaming the forest. To combat elephant poaching, WCS and the national park conducts anti-poaching patrols. These SMART (Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool) patrols form part of an adaptive management cycle, whereby the information gathered on threats are mapped over space and time to guide subsequent patrolling intervention in a cost-effective way. For Way Kambas and Gunung Leuser national parks, ranger team patrols in 2016 covered 3,123 km of forest and removed 314 snare traps set for elephant, tiger, deer and others, and 88 bird traps, typically using nets. Paul Hilton for WCS

Scene of the crime

Crime scene
The WCS Wildlife Crime Unit (WCU) is working actively with the Indonesian police force, national park authorities and the Directorate for Environment and Forestry Law Enforcement (known as Gakkum) to tackle the illegal wildlife trade across Indonesia. Since 2003, the WCU has investigated more than 800 cases, resulting in approximately 400 law enforcement operations and 500 suspects being arrested for poaching or illegally trading protected species. Of these, greater than 90 percent have been prosecuted. For Sumatran elephants, the WCU has provided information to law enforcement agencies to follow up on their reports of 25 ivory trading cases, of which 11 have occurred since 2012. Paul Hilton for WCS

Scare tactic

Man-animal conflict
The WCS Wildlife Crime Unit (WCU) is working actively with the Indonesian police force, national park authorities and the Directorate for Environment and Forestry Law Enforcement (known as Gakkum) to tackle the illegal wildlife trade across Indonesia. Since 2003, the WCU has investigated more than 800 cases, resulting in approximately 400 law enforcement operations and 500 suspects being arrested for poaching or illegally trading protected species. Of these, greater than 90 percent have been prosecuted. For Sumatran elephants, the WCU has provided information to law enforcement agencies to follow up on their reports of 25 ivory trading cases, of which 11 have occurred since 2012. Paul Hilton for WCS

Sanctuary

Sanctuary for Sumatran Wildlife
A young elephant walks outside a veterinary outpost run by the Veterinary Society for Sumatran Wildlife Conservation (VESSWIC).This elephant is being rehabilitated after its mother was poisoned on a palm oil plantation in the Leuser Ecosystem. Paul Hilton for WCS

Reasons for Hope

Conservation steps
WCS and partners are working to implement science-based solutions to save elephants and other wildlife in Way Kambas, Gunung Leuser and other Sumatran national parks. Through protected area management and law enforcement, mitigating human/wildlife conflict, and conducting rigorous monitoring and research, there is hope that the future for Sumatran elephants might not exist only in photos. Paul Hilton for WCS