New program helps protect Asian elephants through crop-raiding prevention

May 22, 2002

A team of scientists from the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and members of local groups and communities have launched a unique initiative designed to reduce crop raiding by the world's largest garden pest - the endangered Asian elephant. Using a variety of methods including natural guard towers, tripwires, and a harmless-but-fiery chili juice, the team is looking to reduce elephant-human conflicts, which often result in extensive crop damage, human injury, and death to the elephants.

The team, consisting of officials from WCS, WATALA (a local organization based in Lampala, Indonesia), Indonesia's Ministry of Forestry (PHKA), and local communities, developed the program, following a long-term WCS study on elephant crop raiding. The project was funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Asian Elephant Conservation Fund.

"Although a number of attempts have been made to reduce elephant-human conflicts, including building ditches, these schemes have failed in the long term, largely because they are costly and difficult to maintain," said Simon Hedges, co-manager of the WCS Sumatran Elephant Project. "The traditional method of guarding crops by farmers waiting in their gardens to fend off elephants has proven unproductive and dangerous," added Arnold Sitompul, co-manager of the WCS Sumatran Elephant Project. "By having a roster of guarding duty, the time a farmer spends guarding his fields will be reduced and he will be part of a co-ordinated effort rather than a lone farmer reduced to watching his crops being destroyed."

Conflicts between farmers and elephants have been raging for some time. Elephants confined to smaller and smaller forest blocks increasingly venture into farms for food. The results have been disastrous for both: farmers lose their crops and sometimes their lives, and elephants are either killed or captured and confined to "training centers."

The initiative, already successfully implemented in Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe, involves identifying crop protection units (CPUs), where the deterrents will be concentrated. CPUs will be bordered with trip wires to alert guards stationed in barbed wire-lined watchtowers. Already, some 52 towers have been constructed along the southern border of Way Kambas National Park, in Lampung, a local hotspot for crop-raiding elephants. Towers made from Randu trees which will later re-root in their new positions and be stronger and more durable than lumber are wrapped in barbed wire so that elephants will be deterred from trying to push them over and the guards will be safe from attack.

Once alerted by the trip wires, the guards will use sirens, spotlights, whistles and firecrackers to scare off elephants. For particularly aggressive animals, such as solitary males, a vehicle fitted with a siren and spotlight will drive animals back into the forest. In areas where vehicle access is impossible, five tamed elephants and their handlers from the Elephant Conservation Center in Way Kambas, will keep wild elephants at bay.

Other methods, including cordoning off areas with ropes soaked in an extremely powerful chili juice, are already being used in Zimbabwe as a deterrent for African elephants.

"Capsaicin, the substance which makes chilies 'hot,' causes a powerful, but short term, irritation in the eyes and nasal membranes which is unpleasant and temporarily incapacitating, although it causes no permanent harm," said Martin Tyson, co-manager WCS Sumatran Elephant Project. "Areas doused with capsaicin and ropes coated in chilli-laden grease will be too 'hot' for them to handle."

If this initiative produces good results, WCS plans to apply these new techniques in other Lampung villages with elephant conflict problems. "We feel that the the applied research and development of these methods will significantly improve the potential to conserve wild elephant populations," said Karl Stromayer, Asian Elephant Conservation Fund Coordinator for the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.

Wildlife Conservation Society

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