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The tale of Papa Genk

The slaying of a mighty tusker by villagers in Indonesia's Aceh province may have become a national scandal, writes Cortlan Bennett, but it has made the predicament of elephants being squeezed out by deforestation and mining even more precarious. Pictures by Paul Hilton

 

Elephants mourn their dead. They are the only creatures apart from man known to ritualise death; touching, cradling, burying the deceased … sometimes crying and moaning in grief. To those who know and work with elephants, they are very much like ourselves. And, of course, they never forget. So perhaps it isn't hard to believe the legend of Papa Genk.

A mighty bull with magnificent tusks, his name meant simply "The Boss". At 22, he was a dominant beast - a giant, even among Sumatran elephants - and well known to the villagers of Ranto Sabon. The surrounding jungle, in a remote part of Indonesia's northwest Aceh province, was home to his wild herd. It was here, in July, that Papa Genk was butchered.

Frustrated by raids on their crops, some villagers had long targeted Genk. Poison didn't kill him. Traps didn't hold him. But a tripwire - attached to a giant spear log that fell from a tree and drove through his skull - finally put Genk to rest. His eyes and ivory tusks were removed, his trunk sliced off at the brow. His grey corpse was left to rot on a damp jungle trail and there, many thought, his story would end.

Soon after the killing, however, a young male appeared from the jungle. Smaller, less defined than The Boss, the bull still resembled his father. He walked into an elephant sanctuary and approached a resident female and calf.

"The male elephant lifted his trunk and whispered into the mother's ear," a young Acehnese woman recalls. "He said: 'Genk is dead,' and when she heard that, tears rolled down her face. She was Genk's wife."

The mother, Suci, is now housed in another refuge with her young calf, Rosa - fathered by Genk - near the provincial capital, Banda Aceh. They were removed for their own protection. Genk's death drove Indonesian President Dr Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to call for the punishment of his killers. Few people in Indonesia have not heard the elephant's story.

 

THERE MAY BE AS FEW as 400 wild elephants in Aceh, an equatorial oasis at the tip of Sumatra, Indonesia's largest island. It is home to the world's third-largest tropical rainforest and is the only place on Earth where endangered tigers, rhinos, orang-utans and elephants are found together.

"We've probably got less than 100 tigers in the whole of Aceh," says New Zealand zoologist Mike Griffiths, who has lived and worked in the province for 30 years. "Maybe 100 rhinos, 400 elephants - it's the last days."

Griffiths is acutely aware of Aceh's competing interests. As a geologist and former oil explorer, he recognised its biodiverse value, first documenting Aceh's dazzling array of wildlife in a book, Indonesian Eden, while pioneering camera trapping, before turning to conservation full time.

Like those in much of the developing world, Aceh's forests are threatened by mining, poaching, logging, plantations and farms. The land squeeze has all but wiped out the Sumatran tiger and rhinoceros while bringing wild elephants into ever-increasing conflict with humans.

Aceh is no stranger to conflict, having waged a 30-year separatist war that ended with the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, which claimed 130,000 local lives. Now autonomous - and the only part of Indonesia to legislate Islamic sharia law - it is opening up and rebuilding, carving roads and infrastructure into the unscathed forests that once hid Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (GAM; the Free Aceh Movement) guerillas.

Many in Aceh are proud of their forests, which are renowned for their rich wildlife and minerals. But those who profess to look after them don't always do so. In 2007, former governor Irwandi Yusuf, a United States-trained veterinarian and conservation worker, banned logging and established a carbon sink to protect the 740,000-hectare Ulu Masen Ecosystem, in Aceh's central-west. He also oversaw the installation of a new management authority to govern the 2.6-million-hectare Leuser Ecosystem, in the southwest, which was granted national protection the same year.

As one of the last refuges of Sumatra's orang-utans and home to much of the country's remaining biodiversity, Leuser is considered the most valuable ecosystem in Indonesia and one of the most important conservation areas in the world. It was formally recognised by the people of Aceh as far back as 1925, when they lobbied the colonial Dutch to protect it.

After having signed away 1,605 hectares of native peat swamp to a local palm oil company in 2011, Irwandi lost power last year. The management authority, Badan Pengelola Kawasan Ekosistem Leuser, was disbanded, leading to immediate illegal clearing and mining, and new governor Zaini Abdullah is now considering opening 1.2 million hectares of virgin rainforest, much of it in the Leuser Ecosystem, to mining, logging and palm oil.

It's a proposal that cuts to Griffiths' heart, for he was instrumental in defining the Leuser Ecosystem and its boundaries, and established the Leuser International Foundation in 1994 to help protect it.

"The Leuser Ecosystem boundaries are based on the natural migration patterns of all these large animals and the minimum size required to support viable populations," he explains. "It's a natural entity - it can't get any smaller. If you lose just 10 per cent of Leuser, you lose half of what's inside."

You also lose more than US$400 million a year in ecological services, according to Griffiths - not to mention much of Aceh's rice production.

"Water's a huge issue. There's barely enough to keep the industrial heart of Aceh running - and it all comes from Leuser. The peak rice-growing season is during the dry season, using irrigated water. If you cut down the trees and drain the peat swamps, there's not enough irrigated water to grow year-round. You lose all that rice for a few palm-oil plantations."

But by far the biggest threat to Aceh's forests is infrastructure. "Roads open the area to logging and poaching. Migration is widespread and irreversible. That is far more devastating," says Griffiths.

 

SULAIMAN IMAM MUKIM feels like the last man standing. The district chief is fighting for his tiny village of Mane, in Aceh's central highlands.

"Can you help us?" he pleads. "All around us are gold mines. They use mercury and poison the rivers. There are no fish - the people are sick - but all they can see is gold. Even the buffalo have died from drinking the water."

The frustration in Sulaiman's voice needs no translation. He is locked in battle with the neighbouring village of Geumpang, the site of large-scale illegal gold mining inside the Ulu Masen Ecosystem. The wildcat miners dig deep shafts, which they line with timber cut from the forest, and process the ore with mercury, which extracts the gold. The toxic tailings are dumped nearby. Mercury is water soluble and causes irreversible brain damage and cognitive degeneration. It builds up in fish and can taint irrigated crops.

Sulaiman says most of the mine technicians are from Jakarta and other parts of Java while the gold is sold through Chinese networks. Local labourers are paid up to 300,000 rupiah (about HK$200) a day - a fortune in Aceh, but only a fraction of the value of the gold being extracted.

"The local villagers know they're not going to be rich - they're not the ones who end up with the gold," Sulaiman says, adding there are an estimated 900 shafts in the area, each supporting up to 30 miners.

"There are 50,000 miners up there," counters 42-year-old Muchtarruddin (who, like many Indonesians, goes by one name), the self-proclaimed biggest gold retailer in Geumpang. "I sell up to 2.5kg of pure gold a month."

Muchtarruddin pulls three 200-gram ingots of white amalgam from his safe. Each ingot is about 50 per cent pure gold, he says. The white colour comes from other metals, such as silver. "And mercury," he says. "We choke [melt and process] the ingots to separate the gold to make it pure." The mercury vapour is released into the air.

The gold dealer offers to take us to his own mine, which is "a day and night's travel from here", but we don't have time. Earlier, we tried to enter the mining zone 16 kilometres from Geumpang, but were refused. We were told to get permits from those controlling the area: former GAM separatists, backed by the military and police.

Muchtarruddin confirms GAM controls the permits but is reluctant to say how much they cost. "It depends on who you are," he smiles.

In a nearby village home, five farmers in their early 30s sit on the floor drinking coffee. They've been mining in their spare time for the past eight years.

"We know about the dangers," one says. "We produce the gold with chemicals. We don't know exactly how dangerous they are, but all the fish are dead. We're not foolish, though - we're not sick. I've made 100 million rupiah in three months."

Back in neighbouring Mane, Sulaiman shakes his head: "They don't realise they are slowly getting sick. They've already poisoned five rivers - that's why we have to protect this area. We have one river we depend on for drinking and irrigation."

The illegal mining has led to other dangers for Mane's villagers, including conflict with wild elephants.

"The elephants migrate during different seasons," Sulaiman says. "But their forest is being cut down. They come here looking for food and we turn them back. Then they run into the miners in the mountains and they turn them back. The elephants are caught in the middle."

Sulaiman has tried reasoning with the miners and provincial government, but to no avail. His village is powerless against the military and former freedom fighters.

"The world depends on Aceh," he says. "There aren't many forests like this left. The environment protects us. That's what we have to make people see. Once the forest is gone, it's gone."

 

YOU CANNOT FATHOM the power of Asia's largest land beast until you feel it. As we push through the jungle, mud sucking us down, fat leeches on our skin and the ever-present buzz of chainsaws in the distance, a trumpet suddenly tears through the vines.

Arjuna is a big Asian tusker; 27 years old and more than 3,000kg. His mahout, Amrizal, is 25 and a fraction of his weight. His power comes from his lungs and an unflinching self-confidence. It is hard for a novice not to betray their nerves in front of a full-sized bull elephant - even a tame one - and we are warned not to approach Arjuna head on.

"Male elephants don't like it," Amrizal explains. "They see it as a challenge."

The mahout unlocks the thick chain that has held Arjuna overnight. The surrounding flat jungle looks like … an elephant has slept in it. With a command, Arjuna picks up the slack chain and hauls it in with his trunk. Another command and the elephant kneels, then rolls on to his side with a tremorous "thud" and crunch of vegetation. Arjuna lets out a guttural growl of protest.

Amrizal ignores the sound and uses a switch to sweep mud off the elephant's hide. He gently pats Arjuna's cheek, plucking at his long lashes as the pachyderm blinks with faint pleasure. Grooming over, Amrizal orders Arjuna to kneel so he can climb onto his back. They lumber off to join the rest of the herd.

It takes an elephant to stop an elephant, and that's the idea behind Aceh's national-sponsored Conservation Response Units (CRU): teams of local mahouts who capture and train problem elephants, which they use to ward off wild elephants that come into conflict with humans.

At the Mane CRU, in the highlands behind Sulaiman's village, five elephants have left the jungle - where they are tethered each night to feed on fresh vegetation - and are being ridden to the river. The routine is the same each morning: groom, swim, train.

The valley echoes with another ear-splitting trumpet as Arjuna enters the clear mountain water. While the other four elephants - two cows, another bull and a juvenile male - settle in together, tussling and spraying each other with water, Arjuna rocks gently by himself against the current.

"Arjuna's a stubborn elephant," Amrizal says as he relaxes near the water. "He was difficult to train and always tried to run away. He doesn't like the other elephants. But he's very clever and easy to read."

While there is clearly a rapport between Arjuna and Amrizal, the elephant's human-like behaviour can be testing. As Amrizal rode to the river that morning, Arjuna suddenly reached up with his trunk, grabbed the mahout's " thotti" - a metal hook used for prodding - and flung it into the bush. Incensed, Amrizal made Arjuna search for the thotti and hand it back up to him, before hitting him on the head as punishment.

"He has to know who's boss, or you will never control him," says the mahout, a little embarrassed.

Life for the mahouts is isolated; they spend three out of every four weeks living in small jungle cottages, training and caring for their charges. They used to patrol the forests regularly for illegal loggers, sometimes responding to elephant conflicts in nearby villages. But the mood has changed.

"A lot of the villagers hate elephants because they raid their crops," says Zainal, who looks after Adi, a sociable 30-year-old bull. "And they hate us, too. I feel very sad, sometimes, because when some of the villagers find a dead elephant they spread rumours that it is one of ours that has been raiding them."

It was another CRU patrol in Ranto Sabon - five hours away - that discovered Papa Genk's corpse. That unit was forced to close - its elephants relocated to Saree and Mane - after Yudhoyono tweeted to the nation on July 15 that there would be a full investigation into the death. The villagers blamed the CRU for bringing them trouble. The mahout who discovered Genk's body still lives in Ranto Sabon and still receives death threats. He is too frightened to talk. Despite 20 villagers admitting to the killing - including the village chief - no one has been prosecuted.

"The mahouts are being unfairly blamed," says Mane CRU director Hasbala. "The villagers say it's just an elephant. But everyone knew Genk."

Hasbala is disappointed, but philosophical. Despite setting up the Mane CRU on his own land, using his own money - such is his love of elephants - he also understands the villagers' point of view.

"The solution is don't issue palm-oil contracts where elephants roam," he says. "But it's hard to say don't mine here or don't develop there, because people need to eat. Development brings jobs. But we need a solution for humans and animals to co-exist. The only way to do that is to protect the forest and be smart about where we develop."

 

TRACKING WILD ELEPHANTS through the jungle, marching in mud-crater footprints, a single thought comes to mind: what to do when we find them?

Led by Nalis, our guide, we return to a spot in which a herd was sighted the day before and set out early, following an elephant trail of fresh dung and flattened trees. After two hours, we find ourselves walking up a dry creek bed, flanked by dense forest.

Suddenly there is a mammoth tusked head poking out from the bush just metres ahead. The elephant - a young male - turns and flees into the jungle. There is a panicked trumpet as he alerts the others … and that's it, the one and only time I see a wild Sumatran elephant.

Elephants share the jungle with tigers. They have no natural predators, yet I cannot help thinking their learned fear of man is more telling than our ingrained fear of them.

 

ROSA WANTS TO PLAY. She's like a dog. A 200kg dog with a tail at each end. But she's small for a 12-month-old Asiatic elephant. The stress of being raised and moved from one sanctuary to another has taken its toll. Behind Rosa, mother Suci is flapping her ears in agitation. In the wild, this would be a warning sign. But at the government-run Saree Elephant Clinic, about an hour's drive from Banda Aceh, Suci can only tug at her chains and watch.

The elephant relaxes as a familiar figure approaches. Vet Rosa Rika Wahyuni is careful not to encourage little Rosa to leave her mother's side until Suci recognises her. Elephants have a fantastic sense of smell, but their eyesight is poor.

It's no coincidence little Rosa and Wahyuni share the same name: the baby elephant was delivered by the vet and named after her. Wahyuni also knew Rosa's sire, Genk.

"He only stole a bit of food. He didn't destroy the village. He didn't deserve to die like that," she says.

It's been a stressful few months for the elephants, but also an emotional time for the vet. In the preceding six weeks, five Aceh elephants were killed or died of neglect, including two orphaned calves held to ransom by villagers.

The refuge in Saree is flat, dry and has little vegetation. Four tamed elephants are housed here, including an adult female, Amoy, and a young orphaned male, Agam.

Agam is only a month younger than Rosa, but is lean and weak. Elephants may be social creatures, but mothers almost never share their milk with calves that are not theirs. Wahyuni says there is no way to extract the vital fluid from Suci, so Agam is being raised on a diet of soya milk, supplements and antibiotics. Without natural milk, his immune system will not develop properly and it will be harder to keep him alive.

"Everyone calls him Agam, but to me he will always be Aneuk - my 'son'," Wahyuni smiles. "They said he couldn't be saved - he was sick and depressed after his mother died - but he's doing better. We tried to socialise him with the other elephants, but they all rejected him.

"I know Saree isn't a good place for the elephants. There's no river, nowhere to bathe and no natural food for them. But I hope the government can help us move them somewhere else like Mane. It has everything elephants need."

And that is the story of these animals' lives. Pushed from their natural forests, shunted from refuge to refuge, they are fast running out of places to go. What's left of their environment is slowly being poised by mercury and, Wahyuni believes, it's just a matter of time before it affects the wild elephants' fertility and health.

"I hope you can help us," she starts to cry: "I'm so emotional. I don't know why."

 

 

 

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