Hannibal used elephants for war, circuses the world over use them to entertain, but Indonesia is rapidly losing them in a life and death struggle to balance expansion against conservation. Outside Lahat, a small town in southern Sumatra, is what the government likes to promote as a reserve for elephants in the region. With a gateway, a gatekeeper and a small entrance fee, this pocket of elephant heaven is supposed to be saving the lives of elephants. And it is, but experts say for every one it saves, many others are dying where they fall. On passing through the park gates, the 'road' soon turns to a steep, muddy track and requires a four-wheel-drive vehicle to gain access, something Forestry Department officials neglect to mention when they claim it is open to tourism. A rough bouncing journey eventually brings the intrepid elephant-seeking 'tourist' to a small hut with a handful of elephants gathered in the vicinity for photo opportunities. Each year at about this time villagers, especially in southern Sumatra, are killed by elephants said to be rampaging through their villages. The flipside of this argument, says the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), is that the villages are encroaching on the elephants' traditional patch. Since 1990, at least 14 people have been trampled to death in Sumatra. So-called elephant corridors are not being left for the herds to move through and feed on in the migratory pattern their ancestors have passed to them. The elephants, who travel in herds of up to 30 beasts, suddenly come upon a village where before there were only trees. Not surprisingly, their sheer size dictates that the village buildings will be damaged and surrounding crops destroyed. In the bustling regional city of Palembang, Forestry Department officials told the South China Morning Post of a committed effort to save elephants being pushed out by rapid industrialisation. They said elephants caught were being used for 'tourism' and suggested Lahat was an ideal environment for them to live in peace. The WWF estimates Sumatra needs 2,400 elephants to have a 'viable' population that can maintain steady levels. Instead, the organisation says only about 800 remain in the wild. The organisation's Chief Executive Officer, Dr Russell Betts, said the government appeared to be committed to doing what it could for the Sumatran elephant, but the pressures of development limited how far it would pursue efforts to preserve the population. 'There's been no corridor system left for them to migrate and as a result every year there are more cases of elephant herds running through villages and plantations,' Dr Betts said. He also said efforts to give some captured elephants to logging companies to become 'work elephants' was not proving successful. 'They [the government] train these elephants and try to get the logging companies using them, but for the most part, the loggers don't use elephants any more; their operations are becoming increasingly mechanised.' In addition, a shortage of government funding for tranquilisers to shoot and capture 'rogue' elephants has meant elephant-tamers are sometimes forced to simply chase elephants back into the jungles. And the zones that are set aside for the elephants are not sufficiently large or well-located to ease the pressure. Put simply, farmers say they can't afford what they see as a luxury - an elephant population left to run wild. In many areas, it is obvious that little thought has gone into the planning of elephant zones or reserves. A significant number of these zones back onto areas being logged and farmed. Others have even been set aside in areas being drilled for oil and natural gas. As committed as Indonesia is to saving the Sumatran elephant, what it says and what it does are two very different things. The government appears to have all the best intentions, but at the end of the day, elephants are still dying. Further south in Lampung province, even deeper into elephant territory, local officials have proposed exporting the animals to zoos throughout the world. However, Dr Betts said the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species would probably prevent them being sent outside Indonesia. Instead, these giants of the jungle are likely to end up in one of six centres set up in Sumatra in the past 10 years to train elephants in logging work, but more often in circus-like stunts for tourists. The town of Way Kambas, in Lampung province, is home to the first of these training centres and is popular for tourists who see nothing wrong with captured elephants being forced to play jumbo soccer. Environmentalists are often loath to speak out too strongly against these training centres because the alternative would be the slaughter house. For the uninitiated elephant-spotter, the Sumatran elephant (Elephas maximus sumatranus) is a sub-species of the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus), which is not only a separate species but a different genus to the African elephant, (Loxodonta africcana). The Asian elephant is smaller, has flatter, smaller ears and has twin mounds on the forehead rather than the African's single mound. Pressures on the elephant were sadly slammed home in January this year, but the full story has only just begun to emerge of the poisoning of 12 elephants in Riau province. Found dead on an oil palm plantation on January 5, the police investigators discovered they died after eating young oil palm shoots which had been smeared with a poison of zinc-phosphate residue. The WWF learned through its investigations that instead of reporting the deaths of the elephants to the authorities, plantation workers using bulldozers and, 'working in the dead of night', buried the carcasses in four graves. The cover-up was eventually discovered after local villagers began to talk and police were called in. This was the most serious known case where man and animal have come into such deadly contact. But more seem inevitable with estimates that more than 850,000 hectares of plantations have been destroyed in Sumatra by elephants. Rizal, a WWF project consultant, said the elephants' habitat was being destroyed before it could be protected as the 188 million people of Indonesia continued to spread into the countryside. 'We have to learn something from this elephant poisoning. The case-by-case solution is not the best way out. We hope there will be integrated problem-solving action,' he said.