A Glimmer of Hope for Elephants, Borne From Humanity's Worst Behavior

A keeper scratches the trunk of a baby orphaned elephant
An infant elephant whose parents were killed by poachers is cared for by anti-poaching rangers.

PaulHiltonPhotography.com / ILCP

Poaching is the number one threat elephants face today. Though African elephants get the bulk of the media attention, the same problem is faced by Asian elephants. Paul Hilton, a photographer with the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP), was recently on the ground with the Leuser Conservation Forum Rangers and Aceh forestry staff traveling in the Soraya district of the Leuser Ecosystem, Sumatra, Indonesia. The expedition intended to destroy snares set by trappers and survey the area for signs and consequences of poaching. It was here he photographed two sides of the poaching story.

In an article published in National Geographic after his expedition, Hilton writes,

"In the five days I helped the FKL rangers, we destroyed 12 snares and we even caught up with poachers — quite literally — carrying ropes and cables to set more snares. The ranger worked hard to convince the poachers there are better alternatives to committing these crimes and they report them to local authorities, but without more funding to really revolutionize law enforcement here, the poaching crisis is only going to get worse."
rangers in camp working on elephant poaching crisis
Leuser Conservation Forum Rangers in camp while on patrol. PaulHiltonPhotography.com / ILCP

Hilton's role as a photographer is to show what poaching looks like, and what the fight to conserve what little wildlife is left looks like so that those of us who are outside of it can understand how we are affected by it. In the ongoing tragedy of elephant poaching, we often see images of dead elephants, their faces butchered as poachers removed their tusks and left the rest of the animal to rot. And we see images of massive piles of tusks, the evidence of how many hundreds and thousands of elephants have been killed for one small body part. These images are painful to witness; without a doubt, they make an impact on the viewer. But Hilton and the rangers he was traveling with came across an entirely different scene, one that reaches farther into the story and hits a whole new set of nerves.

Perhaps the most heartbreaking moment of the team's trek came when they discovered a large clearing. Hilton writes,

"This large patch of ground, void of any trees, looked like a man-made clearing. But as our eyes adjusted to the light, the surrounding damaged trees and trampled bush gave it away: the struggle of a very large animal had created this clearing. On the far side, we found the remains of an adult Sumatran elephant decomposing in a rusty snare – a complete skeleton, except for its missing tusks."
trampled trees and brush where an elephant fought with poachers
The struggle of a very large animal had created this clearing. PaulHiltonPhotography.com / ILCP

"What hit me hardest was seeing the extent of the elephant’s struggle, so clear from the scene of battered vegetation and splintered trees. How long had this elephant thrashed around trying to break free from the tightening rope? When did its panic give way to exhaustion? How long did it take to die? And were other elephants there to see it?"

Remains of a large elephant who fought with poachers
Remains of the elephant who fought so valiantly. PaulHiltonPhotography.com / ILCP
Ranger holds wire snare used to poach elephants
A ranger holds wire snare used to strangle the elephant. PaulHiltonPhotography.com / ILCP

This is the terrifying, painful, and slow death of a snared animal. Not just elephants but a whole array of wildlife poached for bushmeat or the black market. And there is something that many trapped animals leave behind — their young.

The story of orphaned baby elephants is both part of the heartbreak and part of the hope. When they are found and taken in by rescuers, there is a possibility that they will grow up healthy and perhaps even can return to the wild. Hilton photographed an orphaned baby elephant — his parents were victims of the poachers — that is being cared for by the rangers. In a darkly ironic twist of fate, this youngster has lost its family but has found an adoptive one of another species, the same species that caused it to be orphaned in the first place.

Young orphaned elephant
An young orphaned laying in underbrush. PaulHiltonPhotography.com / ILCP

A continent away, one of the most successful orphaned elephant rescue groups does the same thing. The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust is considered the world's most successful orphaned elephant rescue and rehabilitation center. Here, elephant infants are cared for until they are weaned off milk, then slowly transition back to the wild. For an animal that lives an average of 70 years, that transition can sometimes take as long as a decade. Over 150 elephants have been hand-raised since the organization was founded in 1977. Journalist Charles Siebert says it well: "The program is a cutting-edge experiment in cross-species empathy that only the worst extremes of human insensitivity could have necessitated."

Baby elephants in Africa and Asia are left to fend for themselves, and in many cases die, when their parents are killed by poachers. If they are found, it takes dedicated individuals to raise a large, hungry, needy, and socially complex individual. But when you are a ranger who is committed to ending poaching, there is little else to do but open your arms and hope for the best. It is groups of people like this, who are out each day helping these little ones and working to end the reason these animals are orphaned in the first place, that hold the hope for a future on a planet where elephants still roam. Well, to groups like this and to every single person who is aware of and wishes to see the end of poaching.

Hilton writes that "the International Elephant Project, the NGO HAkA, and Wildlife Asia, and are working together to support the work of these 60 FKL rangers. They have years of experience and dedication that is second-to-none. Yet these small local NGOs with 60 men on the ground are trying to protect the 2.6 million hectares of the Leuser Ecosystem against incredible pressures. This ecosystem is the smallest possible area remaining that can support viable populations of Sumatra’s iconic megafauna. With a modest regular donation to the International Elephant Project, you can help keep the FKL ranger teams doing this critical work on the ground. They rely on your support to increase their presence across the Leuser Ecosystem. Join me in helping to fight the poaching crisis now."

To support the effort to end elephant poaching and protect the elephants orphaned by poachers in Africa, visit: