When first hearing about the elephant portion of our trip, I was absolutely thrilled. Elephants are my favorite animal and I have had a special connection to anything elephant-related since I was eight years old. Now, just having left the Elephant Conservation Response Unit in Tangkahan, I am left with conflicting emotions.
This facility opened in 2002 after numerous instances of human-elephant conflict devastated both local communities and elephant populations. In Sumatran towns like Bukit Lawang, elephant habitats have been shrinking due to the high rates of deforestation. The rainforests are being cleared to make way for palm oil trees, palm oil being an important export commodity. This environmental crisis became even more tangible as we drove through palm oil plantations for about two straight hours on our way driving to Tangkahan. With their natural jungle habitats decreasing, the Sumatran elephants have been forced into local towns in search for food. When entering human villages, the wild elephants rampage homes and gardens, leaving the people impoverished and enraged. In retaliation, village members unite to kill the “pest.”
In order to both protect the elephant populations and maintain human livelihoods, the Indonesian government began funding conservation facilities such as the one we visited. The idea in theory is to bring in only the violent wild elephants and keep them in a semi-captive environment in order to reduce the threat they pose to the nearby towns. Additionally, the elephants are then used to help patrol the forests for illegal logging and poaching of elephants, tigers, and other endangered species. Because villagers have only seen elephants in a negative light, the facility conducts environmental education programs to teach locals about the importance of protecting elephants, as well as demonstrating that they can be friendly to humans.
Once we arrived at the facility, my excitement level continued to rise as I saw the beautiful elephants walking around. There were seven female elephants and one male, all given cute names proudly displayed in the visitor center. Taking a closer look, I noticed the area that they had to roam around seemed oddly small and flat, lacking the rich biodiversity of their natural jungle habitat. We were led down to a small river where the rangers each had an elephant they were looking after. Once they commanded the elephants to sit down in the water, we were given brushes and grouped off to scrub the elephants. I picked Theo, the one male elephant of the group. While bathing him, I was grateful that I was having a truly once in a lifetime experience to be that close to an elephant in a semi-wild state. Theo seemed to enjoy the bathing as he flapped his ears and maintained a calm look in his eyes.
Once we were done bathing the elephants, a few of us lined up to get sprayed by the elephants. Feeling the tip of his trunk against my cheek, I eagerly awaited the powerful spray of water on my face. Even though I knew it was coming, it was an exciting surprise each time. The rangers handed us bags of bananas and sugar cane to feed the elephants. This became a playful game as I figured out the best way to place the fruit in their mouths or trunks. The rangers then lined up the elephants and asked us to step back. This was the turning point of the experience.
The rangers started shouting out commands for the elephants to do various tricks like lifting up one leg or bending down on their hind legs. Suddenly, it felt like we were at a circus rather than an elephant conservation unit. These elephants were being used to entertain us and had gone through pain to learn these commands. I saw the elephant hooks that were used in training and later asked the head ranger more about this. He said that they used hooks when the elephants were being violent or stubborn. Elephants are smart animals and it takes a lot of work to train them. The ranger later stated how they had to use the hooks on the elephants’ heads since they “didn’t feel it on the body.”
Having lived in the United States my whole life, I have never experienced knowing what it is like to consider an elephant a pest. For this reason, I must acknowledge my inherent bias in the way I view elephants. However, I am trying to harmonize the differing mentalities in the case of managing human elephant conflict.
When first hearing about the elephant conservation facility, I imagined a place that would attempt to mimic the wild habitat as closely as possible for the comfort of the animals. I thought the unit would be operated with conservation motives as the primary goal, but the closer I looked at what was happening, it seemed like more of green-washing scheme. While the tourist revenue is essential for managing the facility (the government no longer provides funding), it may not be best for the elephants. I was again surprised when I found out that there is no plan for the elephants to be re-introduced into the wild after having stayed in the conservation unit. Yet it is important to understand that these elephants would have likely been killed if it weren’t for this facility.
It is difficult to find a perfect solution for the problems of human-elephant conflict. However, I think it is important to look back to the root cause of this problem– deforestation. Deforestation in Indonesia is being driven by human demand for palm oil. Creating tourist funded conservation units does protect some elephants from being killed and provides the local community with a sense of protection for the safety of their homes and fields. Nonetheless, this is not the ideal situation since it acts as a band-aid, treating only a symptom of the deeper problem.
I left the elephant facility with conflicting emotions, trying to decide if this type of facility was actually helping the elephants, or if it was turning them into show animals for tourist attraction. As a tourist, what had I just partaken in? Was it wrong that I enjoyed washing the elephants and having them spray me?
It was an incredible opportunity for us since it is impossible to interact with elephants in such a way when they are in their naturally wild state. While enjoying this type of playful interaction, it is important to recognize the faults and the benefits of this type of conservation strategy. While it does allow for the elephants’ survival, it keeps them in a captive state mostly removed from their jungle habitat. Bringing tourists to the area generates revenue to maintain the conservation project, but training the elephants in a circus-type way for show does not further environmental education goals.
Overall, I am happy to have experienced all of this, and am grateful to have spent time with the elephants. However, when looking at the photos of our smiling faces washing the elephants, it is important to consider the factors I have mentioned as a disclaimer.
– Neda Movahed