Poachers blamed in second Sumatran elephant death this year

  • Forest rangers in northern Sumatra have found one of their patrol elephants dead and missing a tusk inside a protected forest.
  • Authorities have cited poisoning by poachers as the cause of death, making it the second such poaching-related elephant killing in Sumatra this year.
  • The local conservation agency has called on law enforcers to bring the perpetrators to justice, but past cases suggest this will be slow in coming.

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia — Authorities in Indonesia have blamed poachers for the death of an elephant found with one of its tusks hacked off, in one of the world’s most biodiverse and threatened habitats.

The 27-year-old male Sumatran elephant (Elephas maximus sumatranus), named Bunta, had since 2016 been regularly trained and employed by forest rangers in Aceh province as part of a unit to ward off wild elephants encroaching on farms and villages.

His body was found June 9 by forest rangers inside the Leuser Ecosystem, one of Indonesia’s last large tracts of intact rainforest, which is home to four of the most iconic and critically endangered species on Earth: the Sumatran elephant, tiger (Panthera tigris sondaica), rhino (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) and orangutan (Pongo abelii).

Citing damage to the elephant’s digestive tract, and traces from fruit found near the carcass, officials from the Aceh conservation agency, or BKSDA, say it was likely that Bunta was poisoned — a common tactic used by poachers and farmers in the region.

“After the elephant died, one of its tusks was taken by slicing open its cheek,” Wahyu Kuncoro, of the East Aceh district police, told reporters a day after the body was found.

Bunta, pictured here with a ranger, was one of several elephants trained to take part in patrols to shoo wild elephants away from farms and villages, as part of a forest protection program in eastern Aceh province. Image courtesy of Junaidi Hanafiah/Mongabay-Indonesia.

Sapto Aji Prabowo, the head of the Aceh BKSDA, lamented the elephant’s death and called on law enforcement to bring the perpetrators to justice.

“There’s a human who heartlessly killed this tame animal, this can’t be accepted by reason,” he said.

“We are absolutely at a loss at the passing of this male elephant,” he added. “Bunta was one of the elephants that we really relied on [for forest patrols].”

Under Indonesian conservation law, the killing, trading or distribution of protected species and their parts can incur jail sentences of up to five years and fines of up to 100 million rupiah ($7,160). But law enforcement on wildlife killings remains weak, with offenders rarely prosecuted. On the few occasions that cases make their way to court, the perpetrators typically receive token sentences or fines far below the maximum.

The death of Bunta is the second elephant killing in Sumatra by suspected poachers this year. In January, farmers discovered the body of a male elephant in a protected forest in southern Sumatra with both of its tusks hacked off. It was also believed to have been poisoned. To date, there have been no suspects named or arrests made in that case.

In December last year, a pregnant elephant was found dead in an oil palm plantation in Aceh. In that case, authorities said an autopsy showed general signs of poisoning, including the digestive organs having turned black. The elephant was an estimated 25 years old and believed to have been at least six months short of giving birth. It did not have tusks, as is typical for female Sumatran elephants.

High rates of deforestation throughout much of Sumatra, primarily for monoculture plantations such as oil palms, rubber and pulpwood, have driven native wildlife from their habitats and into more frequent conflicts with humans. Orangutans and elephants, in particular, are seen as pests by farmers for raiding crops and trampling plants. Locals have in many cases resorted to poisoning or shooting the animals.

In addition to these problems, the critically endangered species of the Leuser Ecosystem also face increased threats from greater human incursion into their habitat as a result of road projects.

Bunta was reportedly one of the elephants visited by Hollywood superstar and wildlife philanthropist Leonardo DiCaprio in March 2016. The actor’s foundation awarded $3.2 million to NGOs the Rainforest Action Network and Haka to protect the Leuser Ecosystem.

There are only an estimated 2,400 Sumatran elephants left in the wild, scattered across 25 fragmented habitats on the island.

Bunta was found dead on June 9 with one of his tusks hacked off. He appeared to have been poisoned by poachers. Image courtesy of Junaidi Hanafiah/Mongabay-Indonesia.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Indonesia team and was first published here on our Indonesian site on June 10, 2018.

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