Sat, 10 Jul 2004

Illegal loggin, poaching threaten Sumatran elephants

Oyos Saroso H.N., Bandarlampung, Lampung

The endangered Sumatran elephant population is dwindling, as their natural habitat in protected forests in Lampung province have been diminished by both illegal logging and poaching.

Poaching of rare animals in South Bukit Barisan National Park (TNBBS) and Way Kambas National Park is increasing in frequency due to loose supervision by forestry officials and park rangers.

Poachers do not hunt for meat, but rather for the elephants' valuable tusks. Elephant tusks, as well as tiger pelts and rhinoceros horns, are exorbitantly priced: Poachers reap a few hundred thousand rupiah per kilogram from middlemen for elephant tusks, while middlemen get about Rp 1.5 million (US$170.00) a kilogram from dealers. Tiger pelt fetches between Rp 10 million to Rp 15 million for skin measuring 1.8 by 2 meters. The price of rhino horn, fabled for its aphrodisiacal properties, goes for Rp 8 million to Rp 10 million per ounce.

"If poaching is not immediately stopped, rhinos, elephants and tigers in Lampung will be extinct in 10 years' time. Moreover, they have a very long reproductive cycle," said executive director of non-governmental organization (NGO) Watala nature lovers organization, Joko Santoso.

TNBBS data shows that from 1993 to 2003, more than 200 elephants were poached and more than three tons of elephant tusks were traded. In addition, hundreds of Sumatran tigers (Panthera tigris sumatrae) and dozens of rhinoceroses have been poached, their pelts and horns traded both domestically and internationally.

Investigative reports from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) indicate that as many as 20 elephants have been killed, 33 tigers skinned and six rhinoceroses decimated each year in the park by poachers.

The rate of poaching is extremely high compared to the small population of elephants, tigers and rhinoceroses: South Bukit Barisan contains less than 500 elephants, 300 tigers and 60 rhinos now.

The park, designated a protected nature reserve since Oct. 14, 1982, is situated at the southern tip of Sumatra and covers about 360,000 hectares. Almost 300,000 hectares of the park is located in Lampung province, which stretches from West Lampung and Tanggamus regencies, while the remaining 60,000 hectares is in Bengkulu province.

Dwi Nugroho, a WCS activist, gave two motives for the rampant poaching in the protected forest: one, for sport or prestige; two, the lax supervision from park authorities, which provided an opportunity to poach freely.

The loose patrol and monitoring is evident in the scarcity of forest rangers and ranger stations. The park spans a geographical expanse containing mangrove, lowland and montane forests, and is protected by only 67 forest rangers based at two stations -- at Kotaagung, Tanggamus regency, and Bengkunat, West Lampung.

Six unguarded roads lead to the protected forest, three of which are asphalted and are known to be used by poachers. Under such conditions, poachers are easily able to enter the forest, make their kill and get away unseen.

To compound matters, awareness of environmental protection and conservation issues is low among local villagers, who still consider elephants and tigers to be pests that must be exterminated.

Dwi also believes the light sanctions in place for violators -- amounting to no more than a mere slap on the wrist -- was one of the major obstacles to eradicating poaching of animals and trees both.

He cited Law No. 5/1990 on conservation of natural resources and ecosystems, which stipulates that anyone found poaching animals or wood in protected forests could face a maximum of five years' imprisonment or a maximum Rp 100 million fine.

In practice, however, many violators are jailed only five months.

The poachers' methods are inhumane: Poachers generally use guns or blowpipes loaded with tranquilizer darts to bring an elephant down, then hack off their tusks and saw off their feet or pry off their nails, leaving the elephant to bleed to death and rot in the jungle.

However, efforts to curb poaching are being made, and the South Bukit Barisan park, along with the West Lampung Police and several environmental NGOs have formed a Harimau-Gajah-Badak (tiger, elephant and rhinoceros), or HGB, anti-poaching team.

In addition, the WCS, the local Nature Resources Conservation Center, the Alas Foundation, Watala and the Lampung Alliance of Independent Journalists have established the Wildlife Crime Unit (WCU) to monitor poaching in the national forest. The WCU will be accompanied by Lampung Police on each inspection tour.

The endeavors of the NGO network has already resulted in a number of arrests of poachers, of whom several have been tried and convicted and are serving prison sentences at the Liwa Correctional Facility, West Lampung.