Sumatra’s Elephant Training Centers: A Call for Assistance
American Association of Zoo Veterinarians Conference 2000
Susan K. Mikota, DVM
Audubon Center for Research of Endangered Species, New Orleans, LA, USA


As human population growth continues to soar past 6 billion people, habitat for megavertebrates (and innumerable other animal and plant species) continues to diminish. Those populations that survive do so because they reside in protected, managed areas. With perhaps a few exceptions, there is no “wild.” It is becoming increasingly obvious that concerned parties working to manage “free-ranging” populations and those involved in managing captive populations will need to work more closely together to make the best use of limited human and monetary conservation resources. It seems likely that the captive and free-ranging population segments of many species will need to be managed on a global basis if they are to survive at all.

Our collective knowledge of the husbandry, management, and health care of captive wildlife has vastly increased over the past several decades. If the current trends in human population growth and habitat encroachment continue there will be an increasing need for zoo professionals to share their knowledge and to provide support to in-country conservation efforts. Such projects may involve the provision of veterinary services for free-ranging wild populations (e.g., the Mountain Gorilla Project), equipment and monetary support of protected areas (e.g., Madagascar Fauna Interest Group support of Betampona Nature Reserve) training programs and supply donations for zoos (e.g., Zoo Conservation Outreach Group) or other projects conducted in cooperation with USA or in-country based organizations.

Captive Elephants in Sumatra

Sumatra, Kalimantan, Sulawesi, and Irian Jaya have absorbed over 2.5 million people as part of a repatriation plan by the Indonesian government to relieve overcrowding on Java, Bali, and Madura. There are plans to relocate an additional 65 million people over the next 20 years. As elephant habitat on Sumatra has decreased, conflicts between elephants and humans have escalated.

In 1986, Indonesia brought kwans (mahouts) from Thailand to train Indonesians for capture operations. Between 1986 and 1995, 520 wild elephants were captured by xylazine immobilization administered from the back of Thai khoonkies (elephants trained for capture).

The current captive population of about 400 captive elephants is maintained in six Elephant Training Centers (ETCs) located throughout Sumatra. Here, elephants are “domesticated” and ostensibly trained for use in forestry, agriculture, or tourism. Some centers offer rides and shows to the visiting public. Although some elephants have been trained for use in the logging industry, the demand for elephants to work in this capacity has fallen short of expectations.

Five of the six camps are run by the Directorate General of the Forest Protection and Nature Conservation (PHPA); the Way Kambas ETC is managed by the National Park authority. Food and veterinary supplies are funded by the PHPA on a per capita basis. The food budget averages $1.00/day/elephant; the veterinary supply budget ranges from $1.50 to $2.50/elephant/month. Most veterinary supplies are imported. Financial support for the ETCs was inadequate even prior to the recent economic crisis in Indonesia.

A number of reports have been generated from visits to the Sumatran ETCs. In 1992, Dr. Krishnamurthy, a respected elephant veterinarian from India, outlined recommendations to improve husbandry and health care at Way Kambas.1 Between 1997 and 1998, Joanne Reilly and Pak Sukatmoko collected data on the management of the captive population at Way Kambas National Park.2 In May 1998, two veterinarians sponsored by Fauna and Flora International (FFI) visited three of the ETCs as part of FFIs Sumatran Elephant Conservation Program.3,4 Also in 1998, Ron Lilley and Chairul Saleh of WWF Indonesia surveyed five of the centers following international press reports of elephants’ suffering as a result of the Indonesian economic crisis.5

These reports are in agreement regarding the general problems that confront the ETCs:

  • There is often insufficient food for elephants
  • Funds are lacking for veterinary supplies
  • Wages for mahouts are low
  • Improvement in basic training methods is needed
  • The centers are at or over capacity

Specific health care issues include:

  • Rudimentary veterinary facilities, lack of supplies and equipment
  • Sporadic veterinary service, untrained veterinarians, frequent turnover
  • Sack of veterinary literature on elephant care
  • Poor record keeping

The clinical problems observed at all the centers include:

  • Marginal nutrition
  • Intestinal parasitism
  • Infection from superficial wounds

In March 2000 the Elephant SSP initiated a program to solicit donated veterinary supplies for the ETCs.

Most needed are:

  • Oral and injectable anthelmintics
  • Large animal oral and injectable antibiotics such as amoxicillin
  • Trimethoprim-sulfa
  • Long-acting penicillins
  • Cephalosporins (naxcel)
  • Oxytetracycline
  • Vitamins
  • Flunixin
  • Xylazine
  • Ketamine
  • Yohimbine
  • Topical wound treatment agents

Also needed are:

  • Syringes
  • Needles
  • Scalpels
  • Simple instruments suitable for wound treatment
  • Suture
  • Stomach tubes
  • Necropsy instruments

Equipment needs include:

  • Microscopes
  • Foot trimming tools
  • Small refrigerators
  • Radios
  • Water pumps
  • Generators

Mahouts need:

  • Boots
  • sun hats
  • long sleeve shirts

Monetary donations are also being accepted and can be made to the Oregon Zoo Foundation (indicate the donation is for the Sumatran Elephant Fund). For further information and shipping instructions contact Susan Mikota DVM, 504-398-3111;

The intent of this SSP project is to provide immediate medical assistance for elephants housed at ETCs in Sumatra. Certainly their long-term welfare will require a larger cooperative effort aimed at practical and sustainable solutions which address the issues of habitat for free-ranging elephants and the problems associated with human-elephant conflict. It is likely that projects recently proposed by the World Wildlife Fund, IEF, FFI, and others will contribute to this long-term effort.

Literature Cited

1.  Krishnamurthy V. Recommendation for improving the management of captive elephants in Way Kambas National Park, Lampung, Sumatra, Indonesia. Gajah. 1992;9:4–13.

2.  Lewis J. A veterinary assessment of Sumatran elephant training centers; a report on the visit of Dr. John Lewis of International Zoo Veterinary Group, on behalf of Fauna & Flora International, to the Sumatran elephant training centers at Lhokseumawe, Sebanga, and Way Kambas, Sumatra. 1998;29.04.98–13.05.98.

3.  Lilley R, Saleh C. Captive elephants in crisis; a WWF report on a survey of elephant training centers in Sumatra, Indonesia, 9–20 November, 1998. Submitted to WWF Asian Elephant Action Planning Workshop, Vietnam. 1998:1–6.

4.  Reilly J, Sukatmoko P. The elephant training centre at Way Kambas National Park, Sumatra; a review of the centres operations and recommendations for the future. Department of Biological Sciences, Manchester Metropolitan University, PhD thesis. 1998.

5.  Stremme C. Significant veterinary problems caused by the training methods utilized by elephant training (ETC) in Sumatra, Indonesia; a report on behalf of Fauna & Flora International, to the Sumatran elephant training centers at Lhokseumawe, Sebanga, and Way Kambas, Sumatra. 1998;29.04.98–13.05.98.


Speaker Information
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Susan K. Mikota, DVM
Audubon Center for Research of Endangered Species
New Orleans, LA, USA

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