Deadly Attacks Shed Light on Indonesia’s Human-Animal Conflicts

BANDA ACEH ~ A spate of recent deadly animal attacks in Indonesia has thrown the spotlight on growing conflicts between humans and animals triggered by the rapid dwindling of the country’s forests.

In the latest attack, two women were trampled to death by a pair of elephants in Aceh province on the northern tip of Sumatra island on Tuesday after the elephants entered an illegally cleared field from nearby jungle.

The attack, from which another six villagers narrowly escaped with their lives, came just days after a rubber-tapper was reportedly killed by two rare Sumatran tigers as he urinated outside his hut in Jambi province, also on Sumatra.

The attacks are called human-animal conflicts, and they are a rising problem in Indonesia, an archipelago nation with some of the world’s largest remaining tropical forests and a swelling population of 234 million people.

As people spread into previously untouched forests, big animals such as tigers, elephants and orangutans are being robbed of the large habitats needed to sustain their populations, Arnold Sitompul, head of environmental group Elephant Forum, said.

“The main reason (for conflicts) is habitat loss. There is a lot of habitat loss going on in Indonesia for plantations, mining,” Sitompul said.

Without their habitats, animals such as elephants turn up on newly settled areas at the forest’s edge, devouring and trampling crops and terrorizing villagers. The result is often deadly for both humans and animals.

“Elephants can tolerate some disturbances but if you go there and set up settlements it will lead to conflict… Why is that? Because elephants don’t like humans and humans are scared of elephants, because they’re big,” Sitompul said.

Poisonings and shootings of animals in conflict areas are a common occurrence. At least 45 elephants were killed in mass poisonings between 2002 and 2006 in Sumatra’s Riau province alone, according to environmental group WWF.

“In places like Aceh, conflict between humans and elephants and humans and tigers is increasing,” said WWF forest program director Ian Kosasih, who added that there are no solid figures on how many conflicts are happening nationwide.

“In some areas you can’t say it’s increasing but it’s still there … I’m sure it’s not getting better anywhere.”

Sumatra, blanketed in forests until just decades ago, is the hotspot for the clash between humans, elephants and tigers, Kosasih said.

Kalimantan on Indonesia’s half of Borneo island is the centre of a more uneven conflict, with the killing of orangutans who stray onto rapidly expanding palm oil plantations and farms.

Local governments and non-governmental organizations are working hard to mitigate the conflicts, but so far have met with mixed success.

In response to the most recent attack in Aceh, the local conservation authority sent a team of 15 people – and four tame elephants – to scare the wild elephants back into the jungle.

But such measures, which in the case of elephants also include techniques such as planting barriers of acacia trees and spiky shrubs, are only a stop-gap so long as forest habitats are being destroyed, Aceh conservation agency head Andi Basrul said.

“If we don’t all together protect the forest, then it will be difficult to overcome the elephant attacks, because it is their homes that are being interfered with,” Basrul said.

“If, for comparison, it were our homes and yards that were being destroyed, of course we’d be angry. It’s the same with elephants.”

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