TRUMON, Indonesia (AFP) – Indonesian men ride on Sumatran elephants as they patrol though dense jungle in the west of the tropical archipelago, warriors on the front line of the fight against illegal logging and poaching.
They trek alongside rivers, over rough terrain and deep into the rainforest in an area that is home to numerous endangered species, from orangutans to tigers, but which has suffered devastating deforestation in recent years.
The sprawling Indonesian archipelago has large swathes of tropical forest but vast tracts are being felled to make way for palm oil and pulp and paper plantations, destroying biodiverse habitats and adding to greenhouse gas emissions.
Much of the logging that takes place is illegal as it happens outside concessions granted to companies, but it is hard for authorities to keep track. Poaching of endangered species is also common, with elephants killed for their ivory and tigers for their pelts.
The elephant patrol project, run with communities in the Trumon district of Aceh province, on Sumatra island, aims to give a helping hand.
It employs local men as “mahouts”, or elephant-keepers, who keep a lookout for illegal logging and poaching and report it to authorities to follow up.
Hendra Masrijal, 33, quit his job as a food vendor to become a mahout. He is among a group of around about 25 keepers involved in the scheme, including former separatists who fought against the central government until a peace deal was struck a decade ago.
“It makes me sad when I see pictures of elephants killed by poachers for their tusks,” Masrijal told AFP. “Their habitat is also being encroached (on) by farmers and villagers.”
The patrols deep into the jungle last between two and seven days, with mahouts normally spending 15 to 20 days a month on expeditions.