Environment

At peace with the elephants,
Masen style

On the move: Members of a herd of migrating elephants near Selamat hamlet. Around 85 percent of the elephants on Sumatra live outside conservation zones.
On the move: Members of a herd of migrating elephants near Selamat hamlet. Around 85 percent of the elephants on Sumatra live outside conservation zones.

On the banks of the Masen River in Teupin Asan village, a coffee-growing community has been keeping the peace with herds of Sumatran elephants that occasionally stray into their hamlet in Aceh Jaya, Aceh.

One resident of the village, Rusli, was recently heard reciting, “Bek neganggu kamoe, jak keudeh mita reuzeki hoe laen,” after a female elephant was recently found dead by the river. “Don’t disturb us,” Rusli’s chant went. “Go away and try your luck elsewhere.”

The elephant’s carcass got caught in branches at the edge of the river, whose flow was too weak to take it out to sea. The beast was also too heavy to lift from the river’s steep banks for burial.

“The only choice is to push it downstream,” Rusli said.

Dead elephants have been discovered several times in different parts of Sumatra, including Riau and Lampung. A male elephant named Geng died in Sampoiniet district in Aceh Jaya in July. Rusli said that he and nine other families of his hamlet felt the loss, as they had no conflict with the animal.

“Elephants only come occasionally in a herd of 10 to 25 to feed and pass by the fringes of the hamlet,” he says. “If they enter our plantations and eat some shrubs, it’s their fortune. Perhaps it’s part of the alms we need to give.”

Members of the hamlet have even given the elephants a helping hand, when needed, he says. In 2011, for example, a young elephant got trapped in a well. People then helped the beast to the ground by digging a hole in the side of the well and inserting a log as a ladder.

Some even descended to give the elephant a push until it could climb out.

“The other adult elephants gathered not far from the well. They could do nothing but wait until their young one was raised to the surface. The herd just left after,” he said.

Rusli said the experience convinced local residents that their mental pleas and chants to the elephants to leave the hamlet in peace had been heard.

According to Rusli, the sound of breaking branches or trumpeting elephants is heard when a herd passes. They will stay a bit longer when they find plants to eat. Otherwise they will go away, only to return to the same route some time later.

As the human population increases, however, new plantations or settlements spread over the corridors traversed by the elephants.

Community discussion: People in Selamat gather to discuss what to do about the elephants that pass through the community.

Community discussion: People in Selamat gather to discuss what to do about the elephants that pass through the community.


Data from the International Center for Research in Agroforestry (ICRAF) in 2010 said that land conversion in West Aceh increased by over 4,400 hectares a year after the 2004 tsunami.

Two-thirds of the change occurred in the interior of the province, indicating that the post-tsunami change in forest cover was not significant.

Meanwhile, a spatial analysis by Fauna & Flora International (FFI) said that 40,000 hectares of forests disappeared every year in Aceh between 2006 and 2010 due to logging, estate and mining concessions, road construction and changing land designations.

The key species monitoring coordinator of FFI-Aceh, Munawar Kholis, said that the deforestation had increased the intensity of conflict between people and animals as the elephants’ habitat became fragmented and the corridors the beasts used to roam became disconnected.

The FFI said that conflicts have erupted on more than 980 of 3,200 kilometers of elephant corridors on Sumatra Island.

Around 85 percent of the elephants on Sumatra live outside conservation zones.

“FFI recorded 164 cases of conflict between people and elephants during 2009–2013 only in Aceh Jaya and Pidie regencies,” said Kholis. Rusli was not surprised.

“If people grow plants or build settlements along animal corridors, don’t blame elephants when they traverse their former route and everything is damaged.”

If Rusli’s mental message does not reach the elephants, he prepares a carbide cannon made from a meter-long piece of PVC piping to frighten the animals away.

Noisemaker: One resident of Selamat, Muhammed, shows off his carbide cannon, which he uses to frighten elephants off with a large bang.

Noisemaker: One resident of Selamat, Muhammed, shows off his carbide cannon, which he uses to frighten elephants off with a large bang.


“This carbide cannon was made in 2008 when we returned to this hamlet. I‘m going to build a new one,” he said.

Rusli said that people moved to Selamat hamlet in the early 1980s to raise coffee.

They were uprooted by a flash flood and returned to Teupin village in 1987, returning in 1990 before leaving again in 2003 due to violence connected to the decades-long separatist insurgency led by the Free Aceh Movement (GAM).

When the conflict ended following the signing of the Helsinki peace accords in 2005, people returned and Rusli started working his 1.5-hectare plot.

“Only half of the plot is for coffee, the other half for vegetables, corn and bananas, enough to support our family.”

He sells his coffee in the Calang, the capital of Aceh Jaya. Once every two months, Rusli and his wife harvest coffee beans, usually gathering 50 bamboo tubes per harvest, equivalent to 100 liters.

Rusli says that the coffee plants constitute another means of protection. “Elephants won’t pass through the boundary.”

Elephants don’t like coffee, in his view, perhaps because of its aroma or the sap of the shrub. The lessons handed down through generations of farmers has proven coffee’s effectiveness in warding off elephants.

Selamat hamlet residents still have another secret weapon in keeping safe: tree houses. All the families there have built tall houses on their plantations.

Room with a view: People in Selamat live in tree houses, some as high as 10 meters, to keep out of the way of roaming elephant herds.

Room with a view: People in Selamat live in tree houses, some as high as 10 meters, to keep out of the way of roaming elephant herds.


The wooden houses sit 8 to 10 meters high and are usually attached to big trees so that they won’t easily collapse. “We’ve chosen very strong trees, whatever species they are,” Rusli said.

Tree houses are local people’s last stronghold when the other attempts fail. In the event of an attack by wild elephants, they will be going upstairs while lighting up their cannons to produce loud bangs and scare away the animals. “Normally the elephants will be driven off by the explosions.”

— Photos by Syafrizaldi Jpang

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