Christopher Stremme is a veterinarian. But before you start thinking about taking your kitty to Stremme for her regular treatment, these days Christopher is on to bigger things. The animals he looks after typically weigh 3 tons.
Christopher is the project manager for the Elephant Health Care Program (EHCP) of the Veterinary Society for Sumatran Wildlife Conservation (Vesswic). Hosted by the nature lovers group GoWild! Chris gave a captivating talk on his work and the status of the Sumatran elephant in Jakarta earlier this year.
The Sumatran elephant, as its name suggests, is a unique subspecies of the Asian elephant only found in Sumatra. In their natural state, these elephants require a large area of natural forest habitat to support them.
With the current rate of deforestation in Sumatra, and the fragmentation of what is left into smaller pockets, the Sumatran elephant in its wild environment is under great threat. If elephants are left with only small forest areas, surrounded by human developments, the number of elephant-human encounters, with often tragic consequences, will inevitably rise.
There are only about 3,000 Sumatran elephants remaining: Approximately 2,000 to 2,500 are left in the wild, and about 550 live in captivity throughout Indonesia, most of them in Sumatra.
In its current national Elephant Conservation Action Plan, launched in 2007, the Indonesian government highlights the importance of the captive population for sustainable long-term elephant conservation strategies in Sumatra.
The idea is that ensuring their long-term survival as a self-sustaining genetically valuable population and using the captive elephants for conservation activities and programs will back up wild elephant conservation strategies.
To do this, the careful management of the captive population is crucial, requiring ongoing professional veterinary care, consideration and management support. This is where Chris Stremme comes in.
As Chris says, "Having worked in elephant welfare and conservation here in Sumatra for several years, it doesn't seem important to discuss whether elephants should be in captivity, what is important is how to protect them and keep them alive wherever they are."
The Veterinary Society for Sumatran Wildlife Conservation (Vesswic) started its Elephant Health Care Program (EHCP) in 2006, employing Chris as the project manager and two Indonesian veterinarians to provide veterinary expertise for Sumatran elephant conservation. The program was conducted in collaboration with the Indonesian government agency responsible for wildlife, the Agency for Forest Protection and Nature Conservation (PHKA).
Chris is definitely the man for the job. He qualified as a zookeeper, in Germany back in 1991, and then moved on to full veterinary qualifications, while also working as an elephant keeper at the Hanover zoo.
He worked with elephants in Vietnam and in 1998, and consulted on management issues for Sumatran elephants before taking up his current position.
Unlike in some Asian countries like Thailand and India, there has been little recent history of using working elephants in Sumatra, thus quite a gap in understanding how to manage the animals.
In the elephant camps where Chris and his colleagues are helping, located in Aceh, North Sumatra, Bengkulu and Lampung, a large amount of staff training in proper feeding and care approaches was required.
Malnutrition was a big problem, as well as general health issues like wound treatments and parasites.
When it comes to elephants, as one might imagine, everything is on a grand scale, so a wound that needs treating can as deep as a person's arm. Imagine removing a growth on an elephant colon.
An infection that needs treating may well require the patient to be roped to the nearest tree. It's an intensely physical job.
Chris also analyzes droppings of elephants that show signs of parasites, weight loss, anemia and diarrhea to determine what parasites might be causing the problem and identify the appropriate medication.
One of the issues Chris initially faced was insufficient dosing. Staff at the elephant centers didn't really know how much medicine these large animals require to be effectively treated.
A file is kept on each elephant at the center with a schedule for regular check-ups and vaccinations.
If habitat destruction can be reduced and logged areas rehabilitated, some of the captive elephants might be successfully reintroduced into natural habitats.
Having a stabilized, healthy elephant population in elephant centers creates the opportunity to use these elephants for various kinds of conservation activities such as human elephant conflict mitigation, protected habitat patrols, eco-tourism, education and research programs.
These activities combined with opening up the centers to eco-tourism helps make Indonesian visitors and villagers in surrounding communities aware of the value of conserving these magnificent animals that also call Sumatra their home.
During the past three years, the number of elephant camps and programs using elephants for such conservation activities has significantly increased, and is becoming an important factor for Sumatran elephant conservation.
The Veterinary support offered by the Elephant Health Care Program is also increasingly called on to help with the wild elephant population, to treat their health problems, to help relocate them or rescue injured elephants.
Chris Stremme and his colleagues' work at the Elephant Health Care Program has made a vast difference to the health and stability of elephant populations already at the elephant centers.
However, the future of the Sumatran elephant in the wild is not looking good; according to the World Wildlife Fund, Sumatra has what is perhaps the world's highest deforestation rate. Within the lifetime of many Sumatran elephants, which can live up to 70, the island has lost 48 percent of its forests - more than 29.6 million acres since 1985.
Elephant habitat is continually being lost or fragmented, not to mention poaching, and illegal killing during human elephant conflicts threatening the elephants' existence. Elephant groups are reportedly living in palm oil plantations, which is a testimony to their ability to adapt perhaps, but hardly the ideal solution.
You don't have to be a botanist to see that a plantation with a single crop such as oil palm can hardly be compared with the diverse tropical forest as a habitat.
For Stremme, the most important for the conservation of the Sumatran elephant is the honest and serious political will of all involved government authorities to ensure needed preconditions to preserve this species and its habitat.
"NGO's and private initiatives are providing important support for the conservation of the Sumatran elephants but can not replace appropriate political willingness and responsibility and will fail if this does not exist," he says.