Tue, 24 Jun 2003

Rare elephants wait uncertain future

P.J. Leo, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Controversy has erupted over plans by the South Sumatra Tourism and Cultural Office to ship five endangered wild Sumatran elephants to a Japanese animal park that has a poor reputation.

Under the plan, the elephants (Elephas maximus sumatranus), which were captured in the wild two years ago and are now in Sriwijaya zoo in Palembang, will be sent to the bear park of ASO- Kuma Bokujyo, Kumamoto in Japan some time this month. There, the elephants, which will be on loan for a year, will perform for the park's visitors.

According to Alive, a non-governmental organization (NGO) in Japan, the park does not belong to the government but is a privately owned park with a poor reputation.

The finding was also confirmed by veterinarian Retno Sudarwati of Taman Safari park in Cisarua, Bogor. In 2002, five elephants from Taman Safari were given on loan to the park for seven months.

Retno, who was a member of a health inspection team for the elephants that visited the Japanese park in 2002, said the park did not have enough space to host the elephants.

"ASO-Kuma Bokujyo is located close to a highway so the elephants cannot have a 5 kilometer walk after their shows as they do in Indonesia. In winter, it's so cold that it might cause health problems for the elephants as the room is heated only by a small fireplace," Retno said.

NGOs in Indonesia, namely the Indonesian Forum for the Environment and the World Wide Fund for Nature, and in Japan, as well as wildlife protection groups like the Indonesian Wildlife Conservation Forum (FOKSI) are launching campaigns against the plan to loan the protected animals to Japan.

The latest estimates based on data from environmental groups and the Ministry of Forestry show that only 3,500 Sumatra elephants are left in the wild.

The Japanese park was trying to secure the five elephants through the Ministry of Forestry which then appointed Sriwijaya zoo to execute the plan.

A joint meeting earlier at the Ministry of Forestry attended by representatives from the ministry, the Indonesian Zoos Association, the National Institute of Sciences and other agencies on Jan. 6, 2003 agreed that according to regulations, the elephants should be sent by a conservation institution experienced in dealing with elephants.

Sriwijaya zoo, however, did not meet the necessary requirements. Likewise, the province's tourism board is not a conservation institute.

According to the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), rare animals being used for, among other things, shows, riding or dispatch abroad must be those originating from captive breeding programs which carry the Code C (captive bred).

But the license from the Ministry of Forestry bears the Code W (caught in the wild) while the import license from the Japanese government applies the code C, meaning the elephant transport violates CITES.

South Sumatra's natural resources conservation center head Dulhadi, as quoted by Kompas daily in May, said the provincial administration's plan to send the elephants did not violate CITES and had been allowed by the CITES authority in Indonesia, in this case, the Ministry of Forestry.

Meanwhile, Baidjuri Asir, head of the provincial tourism and cultural office, said the plan had been approved by the Minister of Forestry so nothing could prevent the program from going ahead.

Will the South Sumatra provincial administration succeed in carrying out its plan? There remains several provisions, like the requirements for the conveyance of wildlife species by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) which stipulates that protected species caught in the wild must not be transported for commercial purposes.