Elephants and Eco-tourism

Recently, we had the chance to check out the Seblat Elephant Conservation Center (ECC) in northern Bengkulu in the hopes of learning more about the conservation efforts there. We also are trying to determine if ecotourism to the Center might be able to further support the health and well-being of the elephant populations, both wild and captive, that call the area home.

Currently, there is little if any tourism going on at the park, and it’s necessary to get approval from the government before trying to visit. After receiving the required permission from the conservation office (BKSDA) in Bengkulu city, we left in the early morning, excited to spend a couple days with these magnificent, large animals.

After a few hours of driving, we came to the river bordering the ECC. Having no bridge, the river is only passable by canoe or elephant! It’s best to arrive before 2 pm, while the current is not as strong.

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The mahouts, also known as “pawang,” allow visitors to participate in the daily routines of the elephants, including trekking through the jungle,

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taking a bath in the river,

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forging the river to find food,

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and even going on patrols through the protected forest surrounding the ECC, to observe the wild elephants and ward off poachers and illegal loggers.

The Dilemma

With the dramatic loss of Sumatra’s forests in the past 20 years, the Sumatran elephant is becoming more and more threatened due to human-elephant conflict, poaching, and ongoing habitat loss. Many of the local people are just trying to make a living, but after years of consuming, natural resources (including protected forests and natural habitats) are being rapidly depleted, and much exotic wildlife is on the brink of extinction. The government’s policy was to remove conflict elephants, and place then in Elephant Conservation Centers, of which there are about a dozen across Sumatra, one of them being in Seblat, Bengkulu. Mostly, these are underfunded centers, with many of the elephants brought there dying as a result. Occasionally, they will be ripped from their herds and sent off to zoos and tourist traps on Java and Bali, destined to a life of giving non-stop rides to hordes of tourists in unnatural environments.

Although the situation seems bleak, there are a number of organizations seeking to save the elephants

“In 2004, International Elephant Foundation established Conservation Response Units (CRU) to provide protection for plant and animal species in the region through elephant back patrols of wildlife areas. The CRU project has 4 main objectives:

1) mitigating human-elephant conflict;
2) reducing wildlife crime activities in the important elephant habitat through forest patrol and monitoring;
3) raising awareness among local people of the importance of conserving elephants and their habitat;
4) establishing community-based ecotourism to ensure long-term CRU financial sustainability (1 ).”

More information can be found at here and here

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Although conservation efforts involve politics, money, education, and public awareness, one way we are seeking to help is through ecotourism. We’re currently brainstorming ways to partner with local conservation-activist groups and the government in order to provide a sustainable income for Seblat and for the surrounding community. Through ecotourism, we hope to be able to help the conservation efforts, raise awareness, and provide an alternative income for many local farmers. We also hope to be able to improve the health and well-being of the elephants over the long term by advocating for their humane treatment (would love to see bull-hooks and the heavy use of chains phased out, for instance) and encouraging certain best-practices. We’re sure it will be a tricky process!

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The question of elephant rides is something we’re heavily wrestling with at the moment. Currently, the elephants, of which there are about twenty in the conservation center, are ridden by their mahouts on their forest patrols, which are run only once every few weeks. These patrols are vital for the continued integrity of the protected forests of Seblat, as palm oil plantations continue to encroach the area, and illegal loggers and poachers frequently wreak havoc. The patrols also help to push back the sixty or so wild elephants that call Seblat home, keeping them from invading local farmer’s crops (and being poisoned in the process). Unfortunately, the mahouts don’t have the ability or incentive to run the patrols more frequently, and people illegally entering the forest there actually know the schedule of the patrols, and plan their activities accordingly. With more frequent, spontaneous patrols, supported by visitors who would participate, would there be a net-gain for conservation and the welfare of the free elephants and other wildlife that call Seblat home, as they would be better protected, and also improved conditions for the elephants who are already captive, as they would be better fed and get more stimulating exercise? We are certainly against elephant rides just for the sake of elephant rides, as often seen in Thailand and India. But a multi-day patrol with rangers on elephant back in the forest, that actually promotes conservation? That sounds like something we are interested in exploring and figuring out how to do in the most responsible, sustainable, humane way possible. The reality is, this center already exists, and the elephants aren’t always treated or cared for in the most ideal way. Could the introduction of more funding from travelers and visitors to the area, and the advocacy of those folks and us for the better care and treatment of the animals, be a positive force in the end? We are definitely seeking feedback on this from a number of sources, so please add your voice on this and let us know what you think!

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Meet the Elephants

Bona

This now five year old elephant is alive today because of the tremendous efforts of a Indonesian/Australian partnership (see full story here). When she was only 18 months Bona’s herd (including her mother) entered a palm oil plantation and ate fruit that was poisoned by local disgruntled farmers, killing all seven adults. Bona was too young to reach the fruit in the high branches and was the only one to survive. After being nursed back to health, she is now an energetic youth who follows Aswita everywhere.

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Aswita

Aswita is the adopted mother of Bona. While I was riding Aswita across the river, she lost sight of Bona who was swimming behind her. I felt her body tense as she anxiously started searching for her daughter. Bona was fine and I witnessed first-hand that a mother’s protective instinct is not to be messed with!

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Dino

This elephant was relocated to Seblat after years of giving rides to people on a beach in Bengkulu City. We were told that he is much happier now in his natural habitat.

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Nelson

Although a recent tussle with a wild elephant has left him a little less confident than his usual self, Nelson still dominates as the alpha-male of the conservation center.

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Sari

Sari required more training than the other elephants due to her thick head. She is still a little slow on the uptake, but docile.

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Bruce Levick, an Australian photographer and conservationist living in Bengkulu, and one of the main people responsible for the rescue of Bona, created this beautiful video of the Seblat ECC. Enjoy!

Sights and Sounds of ECC from Bruce Levick on Vimeo.

1). “Sumatran Elephant Conservation Centers.” elephantconservation.org. IEF, 2014. Web. 19 May 2015

Posted 18 May, 2015