Wednesday, January 23, 2019

In Sumatra, a lone elephant leads rescuers on a cat-and-mouse chase

  • Conservationists recently tried to relocate a wild elephant from one forest on the island of Sumatra to another.
  • The elephant’s original home, the Bukit Tigapuluh forest, has been heavily fragmented by human activity, pushing the animals within into nearby villages.
  • The elephant, a female named Karina, is the last remaining member of her herd.
TABIR, Indonesia — Several hours into the search, Karina was still hiding, deep in the undergrowth, far from the road.

The mission, led by a team of forest rangers, police officers and conservationists from Indonesia and abroad: find and sedate Karina, a female elephant who was the last remaining member of her herd. The team meant to relocate Karina from an area near the Bukit Tigapuluh forest to Harapan, another rainforest some 250 kilometers (155 miles) to the southeast. Karina had wandered from Bukit Tigapuluh into the nearby Tabir area after the rest of her herd was killed.

If successful, Karina would be the first female elephant brought to Harapan from Bukit Tigapuluh, a once-pristine rainforest that has become perilous for Sumatran elephants (Elephas maximus sumatranus), a critically endangered species. The rescuers also hoped to relocate a pair of male elephants.

Tabir isn’t safe for elephants, and Bukit Tigapuluh isn’t much better, according to translocation team leader Alexander Mossbrucker, a conservationist from the Frankfurt Zoological Institute who was involved in the rescue attempt.

Ideally, he said, an elephant population of 100 would need 2,000 square kilometers (770 square miles) of habitat to roam in. In Bukit Tigapuluh, less than a quarter of that remains for around 150 elephants.

The destruction of elephants’ forest homes is a scenario playing out across Sumatra.

From 1990 to 2010, old-growth rainforest on the island shrank by 40 percent, driven by the encroachment of industrial agricultural and roads; thousands of square kilometers continue to be lost each year.

Due to poaching, habitat loss and conflict between people and elephants that wander into their villages — an increasingly common phenomenon as the forest shrinks — just 2,400 Sumatran elephants are thought to remain in the wild, according to the WWF.

High levels of human-elephant conflict “will eventually lead to the elephant’s extinction, if nothing is done,” Mossbrucker told Mongabay.

For her part, Karina had managed to avoid humans, surviving by hiding in overgrown farmland during the day and feeding on crops at night. But while the elusiveness saved her life, it’s made it hard to find her for the team of conservationists from the International Elephant Project, a collaboration that has raised more than $30,000 for her relocation.

At one point, the team managed to sedate Karina and fit her with a GPS tracking device. The plan was to monitor her movements and mobilize for the rescue when Karina moved closer to the road.

Yet even with a team of elephants from Minas Elephant Training Center in nearby Riau province brought in to keep her calm, the team’s efforts at capture only drove her deeper into the forest and into trickier terrain. After several days, the team decided it would not be safe to tranquilize and transport her.

Instead, they turned their attention to the two male elephants, hoping that in the meantime, Karina might make herself more available. Eventually, they were able to capture one of the bulls, called Lucky Dudung.

Unfortunately, Lucky’s transition has not been as smooth as was hoped.

“Lucky has been on the move since he was released [at Harapan], covering large distances,” Mossbrucker says. “[H]e even left Harapan forest several times to roam into adjacent areas. Only the presence of field rangers could prevent any unwanted accidents.”

The situation parallels the challenge found in countries like Sri Lanka, where large-scale relocation efforts have been stymied by elephants returning “home” — causing new problems with humans along the way.

According to Mossbrucker, relocations are useful on a case-by-case basis, “by helping establish genetic diversity that is needed for healthy population growth.”

At Harapan, Karina would join a herd of six females and Haris, a young male who was brought from Bukit Tigapuluh three years ago.

“Before Haris was translocated, no bull was present in the area, and therefore there was no offspring at all. Now there is a chance for natural breeding to occur, and with the translocation of more animals, the risk of inbreeding depression could be reduced,” Mossbrucker said.

“Karina would improve the herd’s genetic diversity.”

On a larger scale, however, the answer to the plight of the elephant is to protect more habitat.

“The core problem in Sumatra is the limited availability of suitable elephant habitat, and the ongoing destruction and fragmentation of the few remaining areas that currently still provide habitat, is not tackled well enough,” Mossbrucker said.

With a second attempt to relocate Karina set for some time this winter, the relocation team is closely tracking her movements. They are as determined as ever to get her to safety.

“We know [Karina] was once part of a vibrant, matriarchal herd,” says the International Elephant Project.

“She’s now alone… Her entire herd has now been killed.

“We will not give up until she’s in safe and with other elephants.”

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