As elephant-human conflicts continue to be reported in Sumatra amid massive deforestation that prompts the critically endangered species to go to plantations and human settlements to find food, an expert has suggested that planting the right crops may prevent such conflicts.
Wahdi Azmi, director of the Aceh Conservation Response Unit, which aims to care for the elephant population, said Sumatran elephants were not familiar with oil palm fruit in the past.
“But ever since the loss of their habitat to plantations, the fruit is what is available to them and they find it palatable. They raid oil palm plantations because they like eating the fruit,” he said during a virtual discussion on Friday.
Aceh is home to the largest population of the critically endangered Sumatran elephants. More than 500 individuals of a population of around 2,500 of the elephants native to Sumatra Island live in the province.
As the largest land mammals that live in herds, elephants need abundant natural food. Therefore, the animals need a vast natural habitat as their home range.
Wahdi said people should learn from the history of the Aceh Sultanate, which gained wealth from the export of pepper and nutmeg and at the same time, nurtured coexistence with elephants because the animal did not eat the crops.
“We can serve both animal conservation and economic interests hand in hand by growing the right commodity crops,” he said.
“The people on the eastern coast of Aceh, for example, grow patchouli plants, which are disliked not only by elephants but also wild boar”.
Patchouli oil is a popular essential oil and extensively used in the perfumery industry. It has no synthetic substitute so there is high demand for it, and Indonesia is one of the major producers of patchouli oil.
Beside patchouli, other recommended crops are oranges, limes, lemons and cloves.
“Hopefully more people are willing to plant these commodities, but of course, each community has a different preference. The commodity must suit the community's needs,” Wahdi said.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature changed the population status of the Sumatran elephant from “endangered” to “critically endangered” because nearly 70 percent of its habitat has been destroyed in the past 25 years leading to human-elephant conflict and the loss of more than half of the elephant's population in one generation.
The Aceh Natural Resources Conservation Agency (BKSDA) recorded 170 conflicts between humans and elephants from 2012 to 2017, in which 54 elephants died and 19 people were injured.