As the human population grows, so does the space for wildlife decreases. This leads to increasing conflicts between wildlife and people. One example are elephants in Asia and Africa. With their size and appetite, they can decimate crop fields of small farmers in a very short time. However, these farmers are completely dependent on the their crops and its destruction can be a serious existential problem for them. Thus, these conflicts can often result in the death of both wildlife and humans. The fact that elephants follow the same migration routes for generations also brings other problems. People sometimes put new buildings or crop fields in their paths and a new conflict is not far away. Solving these conflicts requires comprehensive approach and knowledge of the surrounding factors.
The Conservation Response Unit in Aceh, Sumatra, focuses on preventing and solving human-wildlife conflict. This province is largely still covered with primary rainforest where orangutans, tigers, rhinos and the elephants live side by side. Thanks to this unique position, the organization also monitors the area against activities such as illegal logging and poaching and thus contributing to the protection of the entire ecosystem. Awareness-raising among local people and education is also an integral part of the organization’s activities.
The CRU utilizes captive trained elephants, their mahouts, forest rangers and local community representatives for direct, successful field-based conservation interventions. These units support the conservation of wild elephants and habitat by actively managing key elephant habitats, mitigating HEC developing, installing and maintaining barriers, and achieving positive outcomes for both elephants and people by implementing alternative yet compatible livelihoods such as ecotourism for local communities.
Diverse conservation strategies are needed to secure biodiversity. In-situ and ex-situ approaches are not mutually exclusive; no single method of conservation is optimal for all situations, and no single method succeeds alone. Different conservation systems can complement each other and provide insurance against the shortcomings of any one method. Ultimately, the success of both in-situ and ex-situ approaches depends on forging strong links between the two, hence the CRU concept was developed. Implemented in various strategic locations in Sumatra, the CRU concept has been the main field instrument to provide purpose for the non-releasable elephants held in the camps, and through their work prevent new captures. The CRUs work to demonstrate that the capture of wild elephants is not the best option when various alternative human-elephant conflict mitigation approaches and strategies are available.
The long-term conservation of elephants in Sumatra requires that elephants and people co-exist with minimal conflict. Otherwise demands made to the government by the people for the removal of elephants will be difficult to ignore, resulting ultimately in the collapse of elephant populations on the island. Appropriate methods to mitigate elephant-human conflict in Sumatra need to be identified before the situation reaches a point of no return.
Local community participation in CRU patrols pioneers a forest protection scheme. Conventional forest protection systems rely only on the work of government employed forest rangers and have not been as effective as needed. Local communities adjacent to the forests are important stakeholders that need to be part of forest management and protection programs and benefit from them. In CRU project sites, community-based forest protection has been shown to be the most effective and sustainable way to protect the forest.
Elephants in human care also contribute to anchoring a positive relationship between humans and elephants and nature in general. Tourists can also visit the organization in the village of Sampoiniet or Tangkahan to see the elephants or do a trek into the forest and thus support the organization. However, this is a secondary and controlled activity of the organization, where high standard care for elephants is ensured.
The Conservation Response Unit works closely with the Indonesian government environment agency BKSDA, Gunung Leuser National park and the Veterinary Faculty of Syiah Kuala University in Banda Aceh, where they work together to share veterinary care for elephants and the practice of veterinary students.