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The care and management of domesticated elephants in Sumatra, Indonesia - Baringin Hutadjulu and Ramon Janis


The Sumatran elephant (Elephas maximus sumatranus) is a subspecies of the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus). It is the biggest land animal in Indonesia and is found only on the island of Sumatra. They are found in the island's forests at altitudes of 1 750 m, but they prefer to live in lowland forests. They also have a large home range; they move from the mountain area to the coastal lowland forest during the dry season and then retreat to the hills when the rainy season comes.

A number of factors, such as forest fires, human resettlement, logging, timber estates, plantations, agriculture expansion, shifting cultivation, and road building commonly cause the fragmentation and degradation of the island's elephant habitat. These activities, which are increasing year by year, have resulted in a rapidly shrinking elephant habitat and are responsible for the increase in the number of conflicts between elephants and humans each year.

Since the 1980s, the Indonesian Government has tried to solve this conflict by three main activities:

1. First, population management (Tata Liman). This involves moving or translocating elephants from the fragmented or degraded habitat to a more suitable habitat. Every year, until the current fiscal year, the government has allocated a budget for translocating solitary, isolated or troublesome elephants.

2. Second, elephant empowerment (Bina Liman). This involves habitat rehabilitation, fencing, community education/extension, and training troublesome elephants to participate in human activities.

3. Third, utilization of trained elephants from the Elephant Training Centres (Guna Liman). This involves using domesticated elephants for forestry, agriculture and recreation activities.

However, this effort is not successful because the demand for domesticated elephants or trained elephants is very low. This creates a serious problem for the government because the greater the number of elephants staying at the Elephant Training Centres the more the government must spend on maintaining them. Since fiscal year 1997/1998, between 50 and 55 percent of the annual national budget (APBN) for elephant conservation was allocated for operating Elephant Training Centres. Thus, it appears that domesticating the elephant population is not the best method of solving the elephant problem in Indonesia.

Wild elephants

The wild Sumatran elephant was formerly found in eight provinces on Sumatra. However, the dense and tangled vegetation of the tropical rain forest there makes it difficult to estimate the number of wild elephants. In 1929, Van Heurn made the first attempt at an estimate, based on the amount of ivory exported from Sumatra, and came up with a figure of 3 600 wild elephants.

From surveys carried out by Blouch and Haryanto (1984) and Blouch and Simbolon (1985), the Sumatran elephant population has been estimated at between 2 800 and 4 800 elephants in 44 fragmented locations (Table 1).

Table 1. Estimated wild Sumatran elephant population (1984/1985)







North Sumatra




1 100

1 700

West Sumatra









South Sumatra







2 800

4 800

In 1993, based on the Sumatra Elephant Population and Habitat Valuation Analysis, using the VORTEX simulation method, the population of wild Sumatran elephants was estimated at between 3 500 and 4 500.

A new calculation, based on information from eight National Park and Forest Protection and Nature Conservation Province Offices and five national parks in Sumatra, estimated the population of wild Sumatran elephants in 2000 at between 2 085 and 2 690 elephants and found only in six provinces.

Table 2. Estimated wild Sumatran elephant population (2000)




Aceh (6 locations)



Riau (18 locations)



Jambi (3 locations)



Bengkulu (6 locations)



South Sumatra (3 locations)



Lampung (16 locations)




2 085

2 690

At a time of deep economic crisis in Indonesia, the pressure to conserve forest areas and elephant habitats is still very strong. But, there are no protected areas in Sumatra large enough or suitable to accommodate the annual home range of the island's elephant herds. In addition, many farmers view the elephants as a serious pest and a liability rather than an asset. Thus the population of Sumatran elephants is likely to decrease significantly over the next few years.

Domesticated elephants

When kings or sultans ruled Sumatra, there must have been a substantial number of elephants in captivity. They were used in warfare and for ceremonial purposes. With the decline of the sultans and the ascendancy of the Dutch colonial power, the capture and domestication of elephants died out.

In the 1980s when the country was developing very fast, large areas of forests and woodlands were opened up by various economic sectors. As a result, some elephant habitats became fragmented and some home ranges were reduced by human activities. Since that time, conflicts between elephants and communities around the forests have increased.

The Sumatran elephant is an endangered species and protected both by Indonesian and international regulations. Therefore, since 1985, to solve elephant conflicts and to conserve the elephant, the government has set up six Elephant Training Centres on Sumatra. On the basis of each Elephant Training Centre's Annual Report, the number of domesticated elephants in the Elephant Training Centres up to December 2000 was as follows (Table 3):

Table 3. Number of domesticated Sumatran elephants in six Elephant Training Centres

Name of Elephant Training Centre

Number of domesticated elephants






Dec. 2000

Lhokseumawe (Aceh)







Holiday Resort (North Sumatra)







Sebokor (South Sumatra)







Sebanga (Riau)







Way Kambas (Lampung)







Seblat (Bengkulu)














The number of domesticated Sumatran elephants moved from the Elephant Training Centres to forestry companies, ecotourism or recreation companies, zoos and other conservation institutions up to December 2000 was 252 elephants. The highest number of elephants moved was from Way Kambas Elephant Training Centre, and was 193 elephants.

From 1988 until 1994, the number of domesticated elephants moved was 195, but since 1995 the number has declined rapidly. Thus, too many elephants have to be cared for by the government at the Elephant Training Centres and this makes the operating cost of Elephant Training Centres very high.

The average cost of caring for each elephant is Rp.750 000 per month. In 1995, the government's budget for caring for elephants was about Rp. 1 854 million or equal to 51 percent of the national budget for elephant conservation. And this is increasing every year because of the increasing number of elephants in the Elephant Training Centres.

One of the government's efforts to solve the budget problem for Elephant Training Centres was that in 1995 the Minister of Forestry asked 14 forestry companies on Sumatra to use a minimum of one pair of domesticated elephants per 10 000-20 000 ha, or pay an elephant conservation fee of Rp.10 million per elephant per year. But, this policy has not proved effective because almost all the companies think that is too difficult to care for elephants and anyway using mechanical equipment is considered a much more efficient way of conducting forestry operations.


Since 1931, the Dutch Colonial Law protected the Sumatran elephant. This regulation was renewed by the Declaration of the Minister of Agriculture in 1972. The latest, stronger regulation to protect the Sumatran elephant was declared in 1999. This regulation, which applies to both the wild and the domesticated Sumatran elephant, prohibits hunting, trading and keeping Sumatran elephants or parts of this animal, unless the person concerned is in possession of a government permit. Offenders are liable to a fine of Rp. 200 million and/or a minimum jail sentence of five years.

However, the regulation is not effectively reducing the number of Sumatran elephants being hunted or killed because farmers or others living around the elephant habitat do not hunt elephants for ivory or catch them to domesticate them. The most common reason farmers and others have for killing elephants is that these animals destroy their agricultural land or their housing.

The Minister of Agriculture also declared regulation No. 179 in 1995 that stipulated that any private sector or conservation institutions that needed to use or keep domesticated elephants obtained from the Elephant Training Centres should pay an elephant training compensation fee (Rp.14 million for a private institution and Rp.5 million for a conservation institution).

The advantage of this regulation is that the government receives some budget to support the operating cost of the Elephant Training Centres. However, the disadvantage of this regulation is that it reduces the demand of the private sector and conservation institutions to take domesticated elephants from the Elephant Training Centres.


The Sumatran elephant is officially an endangered and protected animal. Keeping this animal and its parts requires a government permit. This regulation also applies to anyone who receives a domesticated elephant from an Elephant Training Centre.

Currently, there is no registration system for those who wish to utilize a domesticated elephant. Each elephant should ideally be given a registration number along with the declaration or permit letter given to the person wishing to utilize an elephant in an Elephant Training Centre. The user should be made to report regularly every month on the condition of the elephant to the Forest Protection and Nature Conservation Office in the province where the elephant is being utilized.


1. Government

1) Directorate General Forest Protection and Nature Conservation (PKA) - Department of Forestry.

The Forest Protection and Nature Conservation Office in Sumatra (eight provinces), Leuser National Park, Kerinci Seblat National Park, Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park and Way Kambas National Park are directly responsible for the protection and conservation of wild Sumatran elephants in Indonesia. Five Elephant Training Centres (Aceh, North Sumatra, Riau, Bengkulu, South Sumatra) are managed by the Forest Protection and Nature Conservation Office and one Elephant Training Centre is managed by a National Park (Way Kambas). Their main activities are to drive out or translocate troublesome elephants from agricultural land or villages to conservation areas or to catch them and bring them to be trained at an Elephant Training Centre.

2) Indonesia Scientific Institution (LIPI)

This institution does not directly support the activities of the Elephant Training Centres, but their activities are very valuable for the Sumatran elephant conservation effort. They conduct research on wild elephant behaviour, count the elephant populations, and carry out other research work related to the conservation of the Sumatran elephant.

2. NGOs

1) Fauna and Flora International (FFI)

Since November 1998, this organization has worked for Sumatran elephant conservation in Aceh province and financial support has come from various sources, including FFI, The World Bank/Global Environment Facility, International Elephant Foundation, United States Fish & Wildlife Service, Keidanren Nature Conservation Fund and private donations. Technical support is provided by PKA, LIPI and JICA.

The activities of this NGO are biological and socio-cultural assessment, capacity building of local communities, policy development, education and awareness, forest monitoring and evaluation, and veterinary support and supplies to Sumatra's Elephant Training Centres.

2) Wildlife Conservation Society - Indonesia Program

Since January 2000 this organization has worked for Sumatran elephant conservation in Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park - Lampung. The society does not work directly for the Elephant Training Centres. Its activities are to develop more efficient elephant census, survey, and monitoring methods, to conduct a Lampung-wide survey of the elephant population, to gather data on human-elephant conflicts in Lampung, to use GIS to examine relative abundance of elephant habitat distribution, and actual potential conflict areas, and to train PKA staff, students, local NGO members and other local people in elephant survey and crop damage assessment techniques.

Unfortunately, in recent times, no university, either local or international, and no foreign funded projects have directly worked with or supported the Elephant Training Centres.

Veterinary care

Every Elephant Training Centre has one veterinarian except Sebanga Elephant Training Centre in Riau. However, this Centre has a good relation with a veterinarian from the Husbandry Office of the Local Government Office (PEMDA).

Elephant Training Centres are managed by staff from the Forest Protection and Nature Conservation Office or from a national park. Besides veterinarians, mahouts (pawang in Bahasa Indonesia) are also involved in the Elephant Training Centres. The number of mahouts is equal to the number of trained elephants (every mahout is responsible for the care of one elephant).

Currently, there is no networking between Elephant Training Centre Veterinarians on Sumatra and other national or international professional veterinary organizations.


1). The Sumatran elephant (Elephas maximus sumatranus) is a sub-species of the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus). It is the biggest land animal in Indonesia and only found on the island of Sumatra in a variety of ecosystems. Forest fires, human resettlement, logging, timber estates, plantations, agriculture expansion, shifting cultivation, road building are the most common causes of fragmentation and degradation of elephant habitat. As a result the number of conflicts between elephants and humans is increasing every year.

2). The population of wild Sumatran elephants in 2000 was estimated at between 2 085 and 2 690 elephants distributed in only six provinces. The population of Sumatran elephants will decrease considerably in the next few years because there are no protected areas on Sumatra large enough or suitable to accommodate the annual home range of the island's elephant herds and many farmers view the elephants as a serious pest.

3). Until December 2000, the number of domesticated elephants belonging to the Elephant Training Centres was 362 and the number moved to forestry, ecotourism or recreation companies, zoos and other conservation institutions was 252. The recent reduction of the elephant number moved out means that the number of elephants staying in Elephant Training Centres is becoming higher. This consequently pushes up the operating costs of the Centres beyond their budgetary limits.


Elephant Training Centres

Elephant Training Centres are one effort to reduce the conflict between Sumatran elephants and humans. Currently, the number of domesticated elephants in the Elephant Training Centres is very high, which causes the quality of care the elephants receive to suffer. It is recommended that Elephant Training Centres:

a). increase their functions to become Sumatran Elephant Conservation Centres. These centres should not only train the elephants, but also conduct research, education activities, captive breeding and Sumatran elephant population censuses;

b). develop a Sumatran elephant registration system (studbook system); and

c). establish a trust fund to become self-supporting.

Conservation areas, habitats and elephant populations:

a). keep (as large as possible) Sumatran elephant habitats in national parks, protected forests and other forest areas;

b). identify Sumatran elephant habitats outside conservation areas and make corridors between them; and

c). develop inventory and census methods that are suitable for the conditions on Sumatra.

To resolve human-elephant conflicts:

d). the government should act as a facilitator to solve the conflict between elephants and humans. The Local Government Office (PEMDA), especially, should give more attention to elephant conservation;

e). people living around elephant habitats should be educated to view the elephant as a very useful asset; and

f). money should be collected from the central government, local government, and the private businesses that use elephant habitats, as well as national and international donors, and used to solve human-elephant conflicts.

Question and answer session

Q1: You mentioned that there is an increasing number of human-elephant conflicts on Sumatra. Can't the elephants involved be brought into the Elephant Training Centres?

A1: It is difficult to do because there are already too many elephants in the centres and there is no work for these elephants. It is very expensive to keep them there. Since 1998, translocating elephants involved in conflicts has been the preferred management strategy.

Someone suggested that domesticated elephants could perhaps be used to patrol areas where wild elephants are a problem. It was pointed out that domesticated elephants are usually afraid of the wild bulls that do the crop raiding, but it was unclear if this was because of the mahouts' lack of skill or some other reason.

There followed some general discussion on the use of insurance schemes to tackle the problem of human-elephant conflicts. One participant stated that a good insurance/compensation scheme could prevent agriculturists and others killing troublesome elephants. Dr Cheeran said that in Kerala tribals are insured against being killed by wild elephants in the forest. But there are various forms of insurance covering mahouts, damage to elephants and crop damage. Mr Mohd. Shariff Daim from Malaysia stated that Malaysia has insurance against crop damage but farmers must first dig trenches and erect electrified fences around the perimeter of their land. Compensation did not work in Malaysia because people encouraged wild elephants onto their land so they could get compensated. Usually they did not make much of an attempt to cultivate the area. Dr Cheeran said there was a group insurance scheme in North Bengal, in the tribal areas, but it was too expensive and not sustainable.

In some places in India insurance companies incur losses by offering insurance, but they do it as a promotion scheme because they can get many names into their database for future reference. Mr Bist said that in some areas the Forest Protection Committees were insured against injury or death from elephants.

Q2: Are you happy with the quality of the mahouts in Indonesia?

A2: They are okay but do not have a close bond with the elephants.

Q3: Some Thai elephants and their mahouts went to Indonesia a few years ago, why was this? I understand it didn't work out well, could you say why?

A3: They were brought over to capture wild elephants, but it was later decided that there was no real need for them so it was agreed that they should return to Thailand.

Q4: How do you reduce the aggressiveness of elephants in the ETCs? And how old are the elephants when you train them?

A4: We use behaviour modification, mainly reducing the elephants diet. Elephants are trained between ages 6 and 19 as during these years they are more adaptive.

Dr Khyne U Mar stated that her organization had trained 50-60 cows. She said success is related to sex (males more difficult to train than females), temperament (some elephants are more difficult to train than others just because of their temperament), and size (big elephants more difficult to train than small elephants). Some young elephants can be tamed in two weeks, others take two months.

Dr Cheeran stated that drugs can be used to tame elephants instead of behaviour modification.

Elephants caught from the wild at the Way Kambas Elephant Training Centre, Lampung province, Sumatra, Indonesia

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