Susan K. Mikota1,2, DVM; Hank Hammatt1; Mitch Finnegan2, DVM
The capturing of elephants in Indonesia began in 1986 as an attempted solution to human–elephant conflict. The intent was to train “problem” elephants for use in agriculture, logging and tourism. The initial captures were conducted under the guidance of Thai mahouts and Thai koonkie elephants (trained elephants used for capture). A number of the Indonesians that were originally trained in capture techniques still work for the government forestry department (KSDA). The younger pawangs (elephant handlers) that participate in captures have learned from their peers. There is no formal training program.
The actual mortality rate associated with elephant captures in Sumatra is unknown, as official reports are lacking. The age structure of the existing ∼400 captive elephants is young (most under 25), which suggests that smaller, younger elephants are preferentially captured and/or that adult elephants do not survive the capture and training processes. Our personal experiences (Mikota and Hammatt) in Sumatra show that mortality in newly captured elephants is high.
In 2001, with endorsement from the World Wide Fund for Nature-Indonesia (WWF), the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), Fauna and Flora International (FFI), and the International Elephant Foundation (IEF), we requested a 2-year moratorium on elephant captures during which time capture techniques would be improved and alternative conflict mediation techniques evaluated.
A moratorium against placing additional elephants into the elephant training centers has been issued by the central government; however, capture for translocation is still sanctioned. Unfortunately, the provincial governments have increasingly acted in their own interests since the government of Indonesia began a decentralization process a few years ago.
Riau Province is thought to have the largest remaining populations of wild Sumatran elephants. Fifty-seven human–elephant conflicts occurred in Riau between 1997 and 2000. Although Riau is a hotbed of conflict, problems are occurring throughout Sumatra, and we are aware of conflicts and captures in Bengkulu and North Sumatra.
In October 2002, we were invited by KSDA (the provincial forestry department) to accompany their team into the field as they attempted to capture a large bull that had been raiding a palm oil plantation. This opportunity was invaluable, as we were able to observe firsthand the techniques being used and where improvements were needed. As a result of this and other experiences with newly captured elephants, we observed:
- Equipment (Palmer) is old, poorly maintained, and used improperly.
- Essential supplies are lacking, or homemade substitutes are used.
- The dose of xylazine is very high compared to wild elephant capture doses used in India and Malaysia. The same dose is often used regardless of the size of the elephant.
- The needles are too short to reach muscle; open-ended needles are used, which can become plugged with tissue, thus preventing injection.
- Neither the correct charge nor the correct load is selected. We observed that many darts bounced, making it difficult to ascertain the amount of drug injected or its depth of penetration. Selection of an inappropriate charge results in unnecessary trauma.
- The preparation and use of darts, needles, and syringes lack basic hygiene.
- Dart wounds are not treated, and antibiotics are not administered.
- There is no understanding of stress or capture myopathy.
- The capture team was not aware that sternal recumbency severely compromises respiration in elephants and that they can quickly die in this position.
- It is believed that elephant restraints must inflict pain to prevent wild elephants from escaping once captured.
- There is no veterinarian on the capture team.
The current capture techniques result in leg wounds from unprotected chains, neck wounds from “kahs” (neck yokes made of wood and wire), and abscesses from inappropriately administered darts. Leg and neck wounds often become maggot infested. Infections from dart wounds are, however, the primary cause of capture-related mortality. These abscesses can drain for several months, even with treatment, and often progress to a necrotizing fasciitis, acute sepsis, and death.
The Riau Province KSDA Team has been receptive to suggested changes to minimize wounds. Provision of heavier chains has alleviated the fear that elephants will escape. Covering the chains with firehose or heavy plastic minimizes injuries to legs, and use of the kah has been discontinued. A basic dart-wound treatment protocol has been established.
In June 2003, a comprehensive Elephant Immobilization and Translocation Workshop for Sumatra is planned to retrain all of Sumatra’s field teams and to upgrade equipment.
Sumatra’s wild elephant population probably numbers fewer than 3000 and is under continued threat. With so few elephants left, the preservation of as many viable herds as possible takes on increased urgency.
The moratorium achieved in 2001 has set the groundwork for KSDA to choose translocation of wild elephants rather than capture and placement into already overcrowded and under-resourced elephant training centers. We cannot guarantee that Sumatra will capture elephants only for translocation, and it is inevitable that many more elephants will end up in captivity. Regardless, all of the elephants that must suffer the interruption of their lives at the hand of man deserve, at the very least, humane treatment.
Translocations are neither simple nor a complete panacea. Identifying suitable translocation areas and ensuring that elephants remain there are significant challenges. WWF-Indonesia is continuing its efforts to secure the lowland forest of Tesso Nilo in Riau Province as a “safe haven” for at least some of Sumatra’s wild elephants (see WWF AREAS Program—Riau, Sumatra: http://www.worldwildlife.org/species/attachments/riau_profile.pdf). (VIN editor: This link could not be accessed as of 2-10-21.) The identification of interim release sites, together with improved capture techniques, offers the hope that fewer elephants will be removed from the wild.
Our work in Sumatra has been supported by the Guggenheim Foundation, a CEF grant from the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, the International Elephant Foundation, Oregon Zoo, Columbus Zoo, Disney, Peace River Refuge, the Elephant Managers Association, the Riddles Elephant and Wildlife Sanctuary, Tulsa Zoo, Toronto Zoo, Niabi Zoo, San Antonio Zoo, Denver Zoo (AAZK Chapter), Milwaukee Zoo (AAZK Chapter), the Audubon Nature Institute (Youth Volunteers), Buttonwood Park Zoo, Melbourne Zoo, and private donors. Special thanks to Harry Peachey, John Lehnhardt, Holly Reed, Kay Backues, Mike Keele, Steve Osofsky, and Heidi and Scott Riddle.