Why Sumatran Elephants Are Endangered and What We Can Do

Male sumatran elephant in Bengkulu, Indonesia
Bruce Levick / Getty Images

A small subspecies of Asian elephant found only in the lowland forests of Sumatra, the Sumatran elephant went from endangered to critically endangered in 2011 after losing over 69% of its habitat within 25 years. At the time, the profound loss represented one of the most rapid deforestation rates in the entire Asian elephant range, which spans throughout the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia.

Although the subspecies is protected under conservation laws in Indonesia, the International Union for Conservation in Nature (IUCN) projects that at least 85% of their habitats are located outside of protected areas. As of 2017, estimates put the wild Sumatran elephant population at just 1,724 individuals.

Not only do Sumatran elephants share habitats with equally rare species of tigers, rhinos, and orangutans, their feeding habits also disperse seeds and contribute greatly to the overall health of their ecosystems. If elephants were to be eliminated or prevented from roaming the broad ecosystems of Sumatra, these ecosystems would eventually become less diverse and may even collapse due to over-simplified impoverishment—we risk losing both the majestic subspecies itself and the fragile ecosystems in which it once thrived.

Threats 

The main factors threatening Sumatran elephants are interconnected, with deforestation at the forefront. Due to the rapid deforestation rates in Sumatra driving elephants into human territories and agricultural lands, human-wildlife conflicts arise and can result in the hunting and killing of elephants.

Loss of forest cover also makes elephants more vulnerable to poaching and further fragments populations who are unable to breed or forage successfully as a result.

Deforestation

Sumatra Deforestation
Tropical rainforest in Aceh province on the northern tip of Sumatra island, Indonesia.

Mangiwau / Getty Images

The Indonesian island of Sumatra has some of the worst rates of deforestation in Asia mainly due to commercialized paper industries and palm oil plantations. To make matters worse, the forests in Sumatra are also made up of deep peat soil, a massive source of carbon that releases greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere as trees are cut down.

Studies show that Sumatra lost a total of 25,909 square miles (averaging 1,439 square miles per year) between 2001 and 2018, as well as 68% of its eastern forests between 1990 and 2010. Lowland forests, where most elephants live, are more vulnerable to conversion to palm oil plantations and other agricultural uses since the land is also ideal for crop cultivation. Since elephant herds rely on forest corridors to migrate and connect with each other, destroying or even fragmenting suitable habitats also risks separating breeding adults.

Today, while species richness and forest cover are generally more intact in and around its national parks, more than 60% of these protected areas only have basic support with a substantial lack of management on the ground. 

Poaching

Although Sumatran elephants have much smaller tusks than those of African or even other Asian elephants, they are still attractive sources of income for desperate poachers in the illegal ivory market. Even worse, since only male elephants have tusks, rampant poaching creates an imbalance in the sex ratio that constrains breeding rates. 

Asian elephants are also hunted for food and young elephants can be removed from the wild for use in illegal logging operations and ceremonial purposes.

UNESCO has included the Tropical Rainforest Heritage of Sumatra site (which comprises three national parks: Gunung Leuser National Park, Kerinci Seblat National Park, and Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park) on the List of World Heritage in Danger since 2011 due to poaching threats.

Human-Wildlife Conflict

The deforestation and loss of suitable elephant habitats have led to an increase in human-elephant conflict in Sumatra. In search of food, elephants regularly enter human settlements, trampling crops and sometimes even presenting a danger to humans. In poor communities where crops are valuable, locals may retaliate by hunting and killing elephants that pose a threat.

The Aceh Province in Sumatra makes up the largest habitat for elephants on the island, though the population has continued to decrease due to frequent conflicts with humans. Data from 2012 to 2017 throughout 16 districts in Aceh suggests that nearly 85% of conflicts occur due to “distance from the human settlement,” while just over 14% were attributed to “primary forest loss.”  

Sumatran Elephant's Threatened With Extinction In Indonesia
Ulet Ifansasti / Getty Images

What We Can Do

In response to factors like poaching, habitat loss, and human-elephant conflict that continue to threaten Sumatran elephants, wildlife organizations, scientists, and conservationists are working to develop long-term strategies and research to help save them.

Many of these issues are interconnected—for instance, building more roads and developed areas inside established elephant habitats makes it easier for poachers to access the animals, while also providing more opportunities for conflicts between elephants and humans. In some cases, fixing one problem may lead to resolutions in others. 

Protecting Elephant Habitat

The creation of national parks and other conservation areas helps protect elephant habitats and provide sustainable job sources to locals, since protected landscapes require wildlife rangers to patrol and keep a watchful eye over forests where elephants live.

Similarly, additional support in the Indonesian government when it comes to establishing laws that keep palm oil companies and logging industries from taking advantage of the forests is also needed. Tesso Nilo National Park, for example, established one of the last remaining forest blocks large enough to support a viable population of Sumatran elephants in 2004. The park, though only covering a fourth of the area proposed by the local government, presented one of the first big steps in protecting Sumatra’s critically endangered species.

Especially in areas like Riau, where logging and oil palm plantations have caused some of the worst rates of deforestation, local organizations like the Rimba Satwa Foundation are fighting against new road construction and development that continues to threaten the remaining habitat. There have even been elephant tunnels built to help elephants cross areas that intersect with roads.

Stopping Poaching and the Illegal Wildlife Trade

Protecting elephant habitat is sometimes not enough; it’s also essential to protect the animals themselves. It is not uncommon to see conservation teams patrolling the forests in central Sumatra targeting illegal poaching inside national parks and even conducting wildlife crime investigations.

The UNESCO Rapid Response Facility program, for example, partners with local conservation groups to search elephant habitats for traps and snares (in the Aceh province alone, conservationists found 139 elephant snares within the first five months of 2014—more than the whole of 2013).

Additionally, organizations like Global Conservation are working to acquire land within the Leuser Ecosystem in the Aceh and North Sumatra provinces for the purpose of conservation while deploying hundreds of anti-poaching patrols to protect Sumatran tigers, elephants, orangutans, and rhinos.

Reducing Human-Wildlife Conflict

In Way Kambas National Park, which houses one of the largest Sumatran elephant populations on the island, the people who live alongside the park’s boundaries are commonly affected by elephant crop foraging. In a survey of 22 villages around the park, people generally reported positive attitudes towards elephants, yet 62% of respondents expressed no willingness to coexist with them.

The survey also found that willingness to coexist lowered when elephants were perceived to be more dangerous and higher when belief in the ecological benefits of elephants was greater, suggesting that efforts to improve crop foraging mitigation practice and increasing people’s awareness of elephant benefits may promote their conservation.

As more land in Sumatra is cleared for non-forest uses like agriculture and development, elephants are more likely to encroach upon farmland and human settlements in search of food. As such, balancing the needs of the local population with those of elephants is imperative to the preservation of the subspecies.

When it comes down to successful wildlife conflict mitigation strategies, the welfare of people who live and work in Sumatra must be taken into account. This can come in the form of providing education for locals on how to coexist with elephants, providing jobs in the conservation industry, or assisting communities with mitigation strategies like physical barriers and early detections warning. Reforested barriers and ecological corridors between elephant habitats and human settlements have also shown promise in preventing further human-elephant conflicts.

Save the Sumatran Elephant

  • Take action to stop wildlife crime by urging governments in countries with high levels of poaching to strengthen law enforcement with the World Wildlife Fund.
  • Donate to international organizations—like the Wildlife Conservation Society—that are working to set up patrol units targeting poachers in Sumatra.
  • Limit your consumption of paper and wood products or look for the Forest Stewardship Council seal to confirm that the products come from sustainably managed forests.