Friday, September 26, 2008

Indonesian Elephants

[Note: this information is all based on things I've been told the last few days by people in Bali. I have not had Internet access to verify facts. Errors are probably due to my faulty memory or misunderstanding.]

Until this trip, I wasn't aware that there were elephants native to Indonesia. Over the last couple of days I've seen a lot of elephant artwork, which I originally assumed was just Hindu style borrowed from India. But it turns out that at least one of the big Indonesian islands, Sumatra, still has a native population of Asian elephants. Borneo may have, at one time, but does not currently.

It turns out that Sumatra has a problem with dwindling numbers of elephants. As in other areas, elephants are threatened by poachers looking for tusks and by habitat loss. The native population of elephants now on Sumatra is maybe 2,000. Note that this problem is not confined to elephants. Sumatra is also widely known for its tigers, rhinoceroses, and orangutans, all now critically endangered.

So the Indonesian elephants are all now owned (or at least controlled) by the government, which is running a conservation and breeding program. Because of the pressures on Sumatra, they have chosen to send some of the elephants to other islands, where sponsors such as the Bakas park take care of them. Bakas has ten, and three other parks on Bali have 19, 20, and 27. [Note: there might only be two others; that 19, 20 might have been two guesses at the same park...possible transcription error in my brain.] As far as anyone can tell, Bali never had a native population of elephants. Frankly, it's a pretty small island, so the absence of a huge herbivore is not a surprise. But it also means that the elephants are out of their native habitat, and so have trouble feeding themselves.

So the government assigns mahouts to the elephants, at least some of which are park rangers. These mahouts have to report to the government daily on the health, environment, and care the animals receive. The government can decide, literally at any time, to pull the loaner elephants back home to Sumatra.

This makes life interesting, to say the least, for the mahouts. Mo, the mahout we rode with today, decided in high school on Sumatra that he wanted to help save his country's elephants. And after extensive training, he was assigned to the newborn he named Febi. They have now been together for 14 years.
Seven years ago, the government decided to send Febi to Bali, and Mo with him. Mo's family, all office workers, had never been keen on his career choice, and his girlfriend doesn't like Bali, so she is on Sumatra. The pay is better on Bali, though the cost of living is higher and he no longer lives with his family. On the other hand, there are also more tourists on Bali, so more tips. Even though Mo is fascinated by the world and would love to travel, he is pretty much tied to Febi, 24/7, so he takes comfort in the fact that his picture travels all over the world with tourists.

I asked Mo what language he speaks to Febi in, as none of his commands were intelligible to me. He said it's a combination of three languages: Thai (his original mahout teacher/trainer was Thai), English, and Indonesian. Then he smiled and added, "And my feet." Indeed, he seems to do nearly all of his steering by foot pressures on Febi's head, along with gentle hand touches and a few words.

Life for Febi seems pretty good. We got to watch the morning elephant wash, and both Mo and Febi seemed to enjoy it greatly. Having the same full-time mahout seems to be great for the elephants, but seems pretty hard on the trainers. Still, Mo clearly loves his work. He smiles almost constantly, and speaks with great affection both for Febi and for elephants in general.

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