(NEW YORK, APRIL 3, 2017) While many rightly voice concern over the plight of African elephants that are undergoing a precipitous decline in number, Asian elephants are facing a catastrophic, yet less well documented decline of their own.

The following photographs bear witness to the work of multiple conservation agencies working to save the Critically Endangered Sumatran elephant (Elephas maximus sumatranus) — one of three subspecies of Asian elephants — in Way Kambas National Park and the Gunung Leuser National Park. The WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) has been working in these two areas since 2000 and 2008, respectively.

The following photos, taken in 2016, illustrate the multitude of challenges faced in conserving the Sumatran elephant. These include the conversion of forest habitat to oil palm plantations, degradation of forest habitat by illegal logging, conflicts with farmers through crop-raiding, and being illegally hunted for their ivory tusks. While the situation is dire, the camera’s lens also finds hope in the efforts of WCS, Ministry of Environment and Forestry, field veterinarians, partnering NGO’s and others working to safeguard a future for the Sumatran elephant.

WCS’s wildlife conservation work in Sumatra is supported by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service Multinational Species Conservation Funds, Liz Claiborne and Art Ortenberg Foundation, Panthera, Elephant Family, AZA Tiger Species Survival Plan’s Tiger Conservation Campaign, the UK Government's IWT Challenge Fund, USAID LESTARI Project, and Fondation Segré.

Photos Credit: Paul Hilton for WCS. 

(Warning: Some photos graphic)


Photo 1: Under Siege: The irresistible image of a young Sumatran elephant in Way Kambas National Park, Sumatra. The following images capture the challenges faced by these wildlife icons and whats being done to help them. Some photos are graphic, but this is the reality for the elephants and those working in the field to protect them.

Photo 2: Up in Smoke: A fire burns in the Leuser Ecosystem, Sumatra. This is the last place on earth where elephants, tigers, rhinos and orangutans all still coexist under the same forest canopy. The land here will be cleared to make way for oil palm plantations forcing wildlife, including Critically Endangered Sumatran elephants, to live in ever-shrinking habitat.

Photo 3: Habitat No More: Bulldozers clear some of the last tracts of lowland forest in the Leuser Ecosystem – an area that once served as prime habitat for elephants and other flagship species such tigers, rhinos and orangutans. Expanding human development and the resulting habitat loss and fragmentation continue to contribute to elephant decline.

Photo 4: Vanishing act: Illegal logging destroys wildlife habitat and encroaches on elephant migration routes. Here, an illegal logger sits outside a makeshift hut knocked over by a herd of elephants. The WCS Forest Crimes Unit has been partnering with the Ministry of Environment and Forestry and provincial police to tackle illegal logging since 2015. For Way Kambas and Gunung Leuser national parks, this partnership worked to arrest 21 illegal loggers through 10 operations conducted in 2016.

Photo 5: All that remains: Bones of a dead elephant and the poachers snare that killed it. Missing are its ivory tusks which are illegal to sell because this species is protected under Indonesian law. With less than 2000 of the animals remaining across all of Sumatra, the sixth largest island in the world, every lost elephant is significant.

Photo 6: Cruel irony: Items carved from the ivory of poached Sumatran elephants are contributing to the decline of the species. Here, carvings sit in a shop in Tampaksiring Bali. Bali has been the major center for carving ivory in Indonesia for many years, given the talent of creative people on the famous tourist island. However, much of the ivory sold here is actually from African elephants, a species not domestically protected on the government of Indonesia’s protected species list. To address this law enforcement loop hole, WCS has been providing support to the Ministry of Environment and Forestry which is in the process of upgrading its Protected Species List and overarching wildlife law. The positive changes will include, for example: a significant expansion of the number of species protected by law, which will ensure that Indonesia continues to meet its CITES commitments; the introduction of a minimum sentence and increased fines for the poaching of protected species; and, the listing of non-native species such as African elephants as protected species.

Photo 7: In the nick of time: Field veterinarians from the Syiah Kuala University’s Center for Wildlife Studies together with Leuser Conservation Forum (FKL) work to save the leg, and the life, of a sedated elephant released from a poachers snare. Thankfully, the vets have arrived before the animal succumbed to its wounds or the poachers that placed the snare returned.

Photo 8: Post-op: Treated and bandaged, a Sumatran elephant continues to feel the effects of sedation before again roaming the forest. To combat elephant poaching, WCS and the national park conducts anti-poaching patrols. These SMART (Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool) patrols form part of an adaptive management cycle, whereby the information gathered on threats are mapped over space and time to guide subsequent patrolling intervention in a cost-effective way. For Way Kambas and Gunung Leuser national parks, ranger team patrols in 2016 covered 3,123 km of forest and removed 314 snare traps set for elephant, tiger, deer and others, and 88 bird traps, typically using nets.

Photo 9: Scene of the crime: The WCS Wildlife Crime Unit (WCU) is working actively with the Indonesian police force, national park authorities and the Directorate for Environment and Forestry Law Enforcement (known as Gakkum) to tackle the illegal wildlife trade across Indonesia. Since 2003, the WCU has investigated more than 800 cases, resulting in approximately 400 law enforcement operations and 500 suspects being arrested for poaching or illegally trading protected species. Of these, greater than 90 percent have been prosecuted. For Sumatran elephants, the WCU has provided information to law enforcement agencies to follow up on their reports of 25 ivory trading cases, of which 11 have occurred since 2012.

Photo 10: Scare tactics: Elephants can destroy crops at the forest edge, which reduces the tolerance of the affected farming communities. Here, fireworks are used by the WCS Wildlife Response Unit in Way Kambas National Park to scare the encroaching animals back into the forest. In this way, potentially fatal confrontations involving methods such as poisoning or electrocution by farmers are avoided. Last year, the Unit responded to 440 human-elephant conflict cases that were reported by forest-edge communities. In 54 percent of the cases, the team managed to prevent the elephants from entering the farmland. In 46 percent of the cases, the elephants had already entered the farmland but the Unit was able to successfully drive them back into the forest with minimal crop loss. Since 2006, the government of Lampung Timur Regency has allocated funds to support community-led human-elephant conflict mitigation interventions around the park.

Photo 11: Sanctuary: A young elephant walks outside a veterinary outpost run by the Veterinary Society for Sumatran Wildlife Conservation (VESSWIC).This elephant is being rehabilitated after its mother was poisoned on a palm oil plantation in the Leuser Ecosystem.

Photo 12: Reasons for Hope: WCS and partners are working to implement science-based solutions to save elephants and other wildlife in Way Kambas, Gunung Leuser and other Sumatran national parks. Through protected area management and law enforcement, mitigating human/wildlife conflict, and conducting rigorous monitoring and research, there is hope that the future for Sumatran elephants might not exist only in photos.


WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) MISSION: WCS saves wildlife and wild places worldwide through science, conservation action, education, and inspiring people to value nature. To achieve our mission, WCS, based at the Bronx Zoo, harnesses the power of its Global Conservation Program in nearly 60 nations and in all the world’s oceans and its five wildlife parks in New York City, visited by 4 million people annually. WCS combines its expertise in the field, zoos, and aquarium to achieve its conservation mission. Visit: newsroom.wcs.org Follow: @WCSNewsroom. For more information: 347-840-1242.