What a great start to the day – a walk to a nearby river for a beautiful swim, accompanied by the sound of monkeys in the forest. And when we return to the shelter for breakfast a visitor has turned up – little Tommy, a three-year old Sumatran elephant who’s become part of the elephant patrol family.
A wild elephant, he was orphaned very young and his chances of survival would have been slim. But luckily he came across the patrol elephants and latched onto the girl of the group, Arni. And amazingly she took him under her wing and adopted him as her own – he now follows her everywhere. Aww!
And now the time has come at last for my elephant ride. I’m so eager I’m first up! My elephant is called Karnangin and he only has one tusk. Male Sumatran elephants rarely develop long tusks, and adult female tusks may be so short they’re not visible at all.
After giving the elephants a tasty treat of ripe bananas straight off the tree, we trek for two hours in the baking heat. The eles get to cool down when we cross the river, and of course flapping those big ears of theirs acts like a ready-made fan! They stoop to chomp on the vegetation along the way too.
It’s a weird yet wonderful experience, and we learn lots on our journey.
Not only does the patrol monitor any illegal encroachment activity, but it also works with local people to help them reduce their community’s impacts on the national park, as well as reducing human-wildlife conflict. For example by using the ‘ele patrol’ to keep wild elephants away from their settlements – where they may wander in attracted by food and can cause damage and injury – or occasionally using fires and flares to scare them off.
Wild elephant numbers have been falling dramatically in Sumatra over recent decades – in fact the Sumatran elephant was recently added to the official IUCN list of the country’s ‘critically endangered’ wildlife, joining the tiger, rhino and orang-utan.
The ele patrol also tracks wild elephants to see, for example, if there’s been any reduction in losses from human-wildlife conflict, and if the populations have expanded.
It’s done by installing GPS satellite-transmitter collars (each costing around $5,000) on the elephants. This project started in December 2009 to identify and survey the movement of the elephant population.It’s been reported that, in a one-year operation period the team has observed a group of 16-18 elephants that have made the area its homerange.
The team also recorded around 8-10 new births in May 2010 alone. The team hasn’t found any more elephant deaths resulting from conflict in the area.
There are now about 28-30 wild elephants in a group in the Pemerihan region, where back in 2009 there were only 16. It’s great news, especially as numbers are down to as few as 500 in total in the national park.
After a great (if sweaty) two-hour round trip, we have a quick bite to eat back at the ranch and head out again – this time to check out a field farmer school.
The idea behind this is to help farmers find the best places to farm their coffee and cacao, and to teach them how to farm more effectively – for instance by spotting and treating diseased plants, using the right fertilisers and improving the way they harvest, wash and dry the products.
It’s the first time I’ve seen grafting, where a strong healthy plant is attached to an unhealthy one and overtakes it. This improves both the quality and quantity of plants.
And we’re shown the equipment provided by WWF for the cacao fermentation process.
And we see the compost we’ve shown them how to make so they have their own supply of natural fertiliser for their crops. The farmer uses organic waste and decomposer to accelerate the weathering process – the fermentation takes about 20 days.
The field farmer school usually lasts six months, and so far 450 farmers have taken part in 11 villages since 2009. What happens is a WWF facilitator approaches the farmers and runs education programmes and workshops to help them. They inspect their plants to see if they show signs of pests or disease or show them how these can creep in – which can lower coffee production by up to 60%, or stop growth of cacao completely.
We were shown some examples of diseased plants (see image), and we see write-ups of research and analysis of coffee and cacao trees, and where they’ve applied treatment to some plants but not others (as a control).
There’s then regular observation and monitoring by WWF (every week) to see if there’s been any change or progress. This happens for a minimum of 16 weeks.
Afterwards there’s a noticeable difference in production – in fact there’s been a 300% increase over two years. It means farmers are now getting a better income.
Our last expedition for the day is a 2km walk to a hydro-electric power turbine – which is a great example of WWF helping the villagers to help themselves. We provided the training but they built and paid for the turbine themselves. They raised the total of 32m rupiah needed (around £2,300), from 30 households, and every month gather 10k rupiah (about 70p) from each house for the maintenance costs, earned from the better living they make from their coffee harvest.
And it’s a win-win. The villagers get much-needed electricity, and it means the forest – which might otherwise have been used for providing fuel – is conserved.
On the way back our guide Sutarno points out a couple of things that stay with me and act as a powerful reminder of the challenges of people living side-by-side with nature.
Firstly there’s an area of decimated forest perched on the top of a hill – it shows how eager communities are for land to farm. Secondly there’s the raised and gated goat pen to keep tigers at bay. Only two weeks ago a tiger was spotted here – and it ate two goats. I can’t imagine what it must be like living in such proximity to wild tigers!