Elephants Patrol Border Between Man and Beast

Elephants on patrol in Sumatra as herds fall prey to humans and coffee crops.


SUMATRA, Indonesia, Dec. 11, 2007— -- It's called the Flying Squad: Four elephants and a baby named Nella. Its mission? To patrol the increasingly contentious boundary between man and wild elephants on the edge of the Tesso Nilo National Park in Sumatra, Indonesia.

"An elephant will smash a motorcycle in one fell swoop. But [a] bull elephant going head-to-head with another bull elephant, that's a different story," explains Adam Tomasek, from the World Wildlife Fund. "In a way, they are the first responders."

When they meet a wild elephant that's threatening a village and they can't scare it away, the male elephants in the Flying Squad have to stand, lock tusks and fight, trying to drive the wild elephants away from crops before people take action.

"Without a Flying Squad, lots of times the only option is to set out traps, to set out poison," said Tomasek.

The park was once home to 1,600 wild elephants. Now there are only 200 left, and the Flying Squad is trying to save them.

The squad members work hard, and they're well looked after. Their handlers, or Mahoots, make them a giant brownie once a week, and they enjoy two baths a day, when the males practice for the rough-and-tumble of patrol.

The males fight and the females … well, let's just say that baby Nella's father was a wild elephant. Ria, another female on the Flying Squad, is pregnant, and the father is a wild elephant.

Local villages have had trouble with elephants destroying crops, or simply backing into houses. One local resident, Nur, was asleep at home with her husband and young son, when an elephant destroyed her home.

"In many of the houses damaged by the elephants, usually the elephants enter the kitchen," said Syamsidar, a local World Wildlife Fund representative who goes by one name. The family fled.

Just outside the Flying Squad's area of operations was one man, a palm oil farmer named Idris, who didn't run when confronted by six wild elephants attacking his trees last week.

"Yes, I was frightened," he said. "But I made myself brave and frightened the elephants away." He was lucky.

"Human lives are lost. These are really dangerous wild animals," said Tomasek.

At Bukit Barisan Selatanit, another national park to the south, it's too late for the Flying Squad. ABC News traveled there in search of the so-called Lost Herd. Once it numbered 60, now just four elephants struggle to survive in a rapidly shrinking wilderness, a wilderness being lost to coffee. The national park is a protected forest, but a lot of it has been burned and cleared to grow Robusta coffee beans. These beans are commonly used in Europe and North America to make instant coffee.

Nestle, which makes Nescafe, buys coffee from the region -- 40 percent of it from local traders.

"How does a coffee producer in Europe or North America know that the coffee they're buying hasn't come from here? They don't," said Tomasek. "And that's actually the root of the problem."

A Nestle spokesman told ABC News, "It might come -- we have no way of knowing -- from illegal sources. Law enforcement is not our task. … We are working with local farmers to increase output from legal, existing plantations."

Tomasek said that "a consumer can have absolutely no confidence in what they are purchasing."

Finding the Lost Herd was not easy. We got a flat tire and then the weather turned. We continued on motorcycles but had to abandon them after two crashed on the wet road. We headed out on foot, and after a fairly interesting journey, we finally found the last four members of the herd. We could see them because the tops of the trees were moving around -- we didn't want to get too close because they do kill people. And that really is the root of this whole problem: Wild elephants and humans don't get along.

As their habitat shrinks, more elephants leave the forest and trample crops like coffee, so the farmers kill them. Next week the Indonesian government plans to relocate the Lost Herd survivors to a sanctuary.

"The future for elephants in a sanctuary isn't one that is very pretty," said Tomasek." If all of the animals were just to go into sanctuaries or zoos, the natural world would really be a miserable place."

So the World Wildlife Fund is trying to stop the clearing. It spent a year investigating this illegal coffee grown in the national park. They tracked the beans to the West. They're also trying to stop the killing.

"There are some proven techniques," said Tomasek. "Ways to reduce the kind of conflict we're seeing with the human communities and villages living inside or near the park."

One technique, of course, is the Flying Squad. Those four elephants on patrol at Tesso Nilo. Baby Nella hasn't even reached her first birthday, and she's in training. The World Wildlife Fund plans to expand the program, because since the Flying Squad's been on patrol, not one wild elephant has been killed on its watch.

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