Developing a common understanding on the relation between environmental conservation and peace while recognizing that these two are interlinked will help decisionmakers prevent human-wildlife conflict and maintain harmony in Aceh and elsewhere in Indonesia.
This is among the central themes from Indonesia being showcased at the Paris Peace Forum in France on Nov. 11 to 13. The Forum gathers all relevant actors under one roof in order to defend and adapt multilateralism for collective action in addressing the pressing issues of the 21st century.
One of the projects presented by the Indonesian delegates, titled Living in Harmony: Mitigating Human-Wildlife Conflict, deals with the plight of elephants, whose population in Aceh keeps decreasing as a result of frequent conflicts with humans. Aceh is the best example in Asia of the transformation of violent human conflict into enduring peace.
Understanding the human-elephant relationship as a possible solution to mitigate any ensuing conflict from encounters between these two species may facilitate the effort and participation of communities to mitigate future conflicts in Aceh.
Elephants play an important role in preserving forests and the ecosystems within. As animals with a wide home range, elephants help spread seeds when they move to search for food and water.
Those seeds will grow into new trees. In the dry season, elephants dig the ground with their tusks to find water. The promotion of elephants’ survival is thus vital.
A subspecies of Asian elephants, Elephas maximus sumatranus only lives in Sumatra. They are assigned as an umbrella species, acting as an indicator for wildlife conservation management. The population decline of elephants can lead to adverse impacts on the whole complexity of the forest ecosystem.
Experts say the population of Asian elephants has shrunk 50 percent since the 1900s. An island-wide rapid survey in 1985 suggested that between 2,800 and 4,800 elephants lived in the wild in 44 ranges in all eight mainland provinces of Sumatra (Blouch and Haryanto 1984). By 2008, elephants had become locally extinct in 23 of the 43 ranges identified before, indicating a very significant decline in population.
Thorough population estimates are not yet available, while the latest assessment indicates that all these fragmented elephant populations are unlikely to survive over the long term. However, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), 69 percent of elephant habitats in Sumatra have been lost to deforestation in the last 25 years. According to their numbers, the IUCN has put elephants in the red list as “critically endangered” since 2011.
Considering the continuous decline of the elephant population, the preservation of elephant habitats should be a top priority. Aceh is the last stronghold for Sumatran elephants, after Lampung and Riau.
Elephants require an extensive area for foraging, finding mates and sheltering, and habitat fragmentation leads to a reduction in movement space. The expansion rate of agriculture, plantation fields, settlements and forestry industries directly affects occurrences of conflicts between humans and elephants, which may end up with casualties on both sides. Decreasing forest coverage in Aceh tends to intensify Human Elephant Conflict (HEC).
According to the Aceh Natural Resources Conservation Agency (BKSDA), 55 out of the 68 elephant deaths that occurred in 2012 to 2017 (81 percent) were caused by conflicts with humans. In addition to elephant deaths, the conflicts also resulted in at least 19 human injuries and eight human deaths. The increasing number of HEC every year in Aceh resulted in a decline of the elephant population, from about 800 in 2003 to between 500 and 535 by 2015. If this conflict continues, elephants will be extinct in the next 30 to 40 years.
According to the analysis of the satellite data taken from Global Forest Watch, Aceh lost 216,818 hectares of primary forest cover from 2001 to 2016. According to the BKSDA, 77,463 hectares (35.7 percent) are vital elephant habitats. At the same time, elephant habitats with the highest rate of deforestation are found in East Aceh and Aceh Jaya regencies, where the largest number of fatalities from conflicts was recorded between 2012 and 2017.
To address the interference of elephants in human settlements, it’s important to have a close look at the underlying cause of the issue: deforestation. The first step is to try to delay and finally halt concessions in high conservation value areas.
These so-called high conservation values (HCVs) include areas for conservation, areas with high-biodiversity and ecological landscapes, important water resources, as well as endangered and protected animal habitats.
As a result of the conversion of nature into residential, agriculture or infrastructure development, 85 percent of the places where elephants live are now outside a conservation area. Therefore, the government needs to make sure that forests outside of conservation areas do get protection as well in order to safeguard all elephant habitats. The spirit to protect HCV areas should also be reflected in preparations of the Strategic Environmental Assessment (KLHS) and the Spatial Plan (RT/RW) to avoid economic losses of local communities and the decline of the elephant population due to HEC.
Second, the government can enrich the forest by planting natural elephant feeding plants so that they don’t have to go outside the forest to find food. People living around the forest can also grow plants and crops around their villages that elephants do not like, such as lemons, lemon grass, coffee, chili and pepper. A project in Aceh already has shown good results with this approach.
Third, the government needs to establish an effective patrol team to monitor elephants and make sure they don’t enter villages. However, patrol by foot or horses is not optimal as these areas are large and not easily accessible. Using technology such as drones that can facilitate vast area monitoring and challenging terrains would be a good solution for forest preservation.
Another example of useful technology for environmental activists is the Forest Watcher application, which provides data on changes in forest cover, even in areas without internet coverage. Forest Watcher can send deforestation data directly to a mobile device so that the patrol team can immediately inspect the location. This free application can also be used by communities living around the forest to monitor and report deforestations.
Finally, combatting deforestation requires accurate data, especially of a kind that can be used by an early warning system.
Forest loss does not only affect elephants but also causes conflicts between humans and wildlife such as tigers, orangutans, rhinos and many more. Temporary solutions, such as the installation of electric fences in plantation areas, will not be able to prevent human-wildlife conflict in the long run. Collaboration between governments, communities, academics and nongovernmental organizations is needed to prevent the loss of forests as the habitat and source of food for the fauna within.
There will be no lasting peace if we don’t coexist and live in harmony with nature.
Head of Wildlife Management Department, School of Forestry, Bogor Agricultural University (IPB)
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.