WWF Elephant Flying Squad

Post on 2016-10-10 | Indonesia


By S. Kramer

Located in the Pelalawan Regency in Riau Province, Tesso Nilo was designated as national park by the Indonesian government in 2004 to protect the endangered elephant and Sumatran tiger’s population. Tesso Nilo is the home of about 150 wild elephants, about half of the whole elephant population in Sumatra. It is part of Bukit Tiga Puluh conservation area. The Flying Squad project was established by the WWF and the Dept. of Conservation of Riau Province to tackle the human-elephant conflict in the area by using a group of tamed elephants to push wild elephants back to the jungle, away from human populated area.

As we flew above the area of south Sumatra, we were presented with the view of neat green patches of palm plantation covering the vast expanded area of what used to be a dense rainforest, former home of Sumatran tiger, rhinos, elephants, and orangutans among others. Where do they have to live now? The monotonous view of palm trees plantations, although appears beautiful, made us realize how serious the deforestation activities has been. No wonder that every year they experience forest fire in this area which also affected the neighboring countries like Malaysia and Singapore.

After a restful night in Pekanbaru the capital of Riau, we left for Tesso Nilo accompanied by local WWF staff. The uneventful road trip takes about 4 hours with the last leg of the trip going through the palm trees plantation on a dirt road. The encroachment problem in Tesso Nilo is apparently still ongoing. People came to claim a piece of land in the protected area and built their houses or open the forest for palm plantation. At some point of the trip, we past a short stretch of a paved road passing through a small village, and we were told that the big house was the home of the village chief who deserves to have a paved road.


When we arrived at the guest house in Tesso Nilo we were greeted by the staff who brought us a glass of cool ginger lime drink. Then, we joined the staff to cook brownies for the elephants. It consists of rice husks, chopped corn, and palm sugar, cooked in a big pot over a bonfire. The mix was then cooled down overnight and made into brownie balls.


After breakfast, we started the day with giving a bath ritual to all the squad members. There were 6 elephants altogether working as a group. One female elephant named Lisa was absent because she was heavily pregnant. After the refreshing bath, they get their treats of brownie balls that we cooked the day before. It was rather a scary funny experience to hand feed the elephant since we have to put the food into its big mouth while its trunk flying around free, ready to hit us anytime.

I got to ride on an old gentleman elephant called Rahman behind the Mahout (trainer). We went through the forest area where the elephants roam overnight, passing small streams up and down the hills and valley and finally arrived on a waterhole where the elephants usually take a bath in the morning. The guide asked us if we want to bathe the elephant and I agreed immediately. The guide took the saddle, asked the elephant to kneel down and helped me to get back to its back again. Then he led the elephant into the water, brownish black from humus and organic materials leached by the rains from the peat soil. On top of the elephant’s back I could still keep myself dry until the elephant started to kneel down into the bottom of the river taking me into the refreshing black water. Then it was my turn to work scrubbing and cleaning the elephant’s back. After a half hour of refreshing spa, we got out of the water and continued our journey back to the lodge. On June 1st, we received news that Lisa gave birth to a healthy baby girl in front of CCTV camera.

The Flying Squad experience is only one of the many things that attract visitors to Tesso Nilo National Park. Other attractions in the nearby area include the 11th century Muara Takus Buddhist temple and the unique Bono tidal bore surfing at nearby Kampar River. Bono is the high wave formed when the ocean tide meets the river stream flowing to the sea. The waves can reach up to 10 meters high. The local legend told that the seven consecutive waves of the Bono were the ghosts of seven male dragons. Similar waves are also found in Rokan Hilir which according to the local legend is the female dragon. Unfortunately, since the Bono comes only during certain times of the year (mostly around November and December) we did not get to witness this rare type of tidal bore.

After a days activity with the flying squad, we got invited by the local community to a performance of silat Pangean at the village courtyard in the evening. This is a kind of martial arts with some sacred rituals performed as a welcome ceremony to honor visitors. The performance was started with Maracik Limau ceremony. This was followed by a smooth gentle performance of martial arts. It is almost like dancing; nevertheless it can have a serious impact to the opponent.

On the third day of our visit, we did jungle trekking. We walked into the jungle for about 2.5 hrs and were introduced to the various types of vascular plant species that can be found in the forest. A vascular plant species is a land plant that has xylem and phloem tissues. Vascular plants include flowers, conifers, and ferns. Tesso Nilo has the highest diversity of these plants in the world. The guide also showed us the claw marks of a sun bear on a tree. At some point during our jungle walk we heard the noise of the bear quite close by. This stopped us for a while. Other animals living in the park are Sumatran tiger, Malayan tapir, midsize primates, deer, monitor lizard, snakes and butterflies. We found also a big type of snail on the forest floor. In the afternoon we went to see the traditional method of harvesting wild honey from the Sialang forest. The harvesting process was started with a ceremony of chanting from the man who will climb the tree where the beehive is located. The ceremony is to ask permission from the guardian spirits of the tree and forest. After the ceremony, the man climbed a few branches on the tree, then swung a long rope made of rattan root around the tree to climb further. On the way back we stopped by at the WWF nursery where they cultivate new saplings to be replanted in the forest.

The monsoon tropical rains and thunder came to the area that evening, keeping us indoors for the rest of the evening. I spent the evening writing in my journal, enjoying a hot ginger drink with fried banana and a dinner of typical Riau dish of nasi lemak, patin asam pedas and vegetables. Nasi lemak is rice with coconut milk and patin asam pedas sour and spicy fish. No hope of stargazing for the night.

We left the lodge early in the morning soon after breakfast, bringing with us a souvenir of local sustainably harvested wild honey from Sialang purchased from Lubuk Kembang Bunga Village.

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