Where are the elephants? Lucy Twitcher’s 1st three months in Soraya

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The Sumatran elephant, a subspecies of the Asian elephant, is critically endangered and is found only in Sumatra, Indonesia. However, the lack of information about Sumatran elephant distribution, habitat use and home ranges makes it difficult to plan effective conservation strategies, and further research is needed to prevent their extinction.

Researching elephants isn’t always straight forward as Lucy Twitcher found out in her first three months in Sumatra as a student working on the project. 

Where are the elephants? Lucy Twitcher’s 1st three months in Soraya

The last three months have been my first in Sumatra. I have been based at Soraya Research Station, in the Leuser Ecosystem, Aceh Province, walking line transects, hunting for signs of the Sumatran elephants – namely their dung. Unfortunately, no fresh dung has been found, although I have seen several piles of old dung and some footprints. Additionally, we found an old elephant carcass, a camp used by hunters and locations of illegal logging, all of which were previously unknown to the Rangers of the area.

My project is part of the PTES funded Sumatran elephant project and these first 3 months I was there as a volunteer to do elephant dung transects and identify habitat use by elephants in Soraya.

Elephant human conflict

The Sumatran elephant is critically endangered and currently, there is very little knowledge of population numbers and land use. Much of their original forest has been cleared for agriculture, logging, human settlements and the cultivation of palm oil. This has led to elephants coming into contact with humans with increasing frequency. Crop raiding by elephants is devastating for both farmers and elephants; one raid can clear a farmer’s whole harvest (and income) for the year, causing retaliation sometimes resulting in elephant (and human) deaths.

I was lucky enough to join the CRU (Conservation Response Unit) Truman team in Aceh, who respond to the calls of local villages when elephants are around. The team try to then locate the elephants and scare them away using load bangs and fireworks. When I went, we were unable to find the elephants, however there were very fresh signs from the previous night!

Close encounter with a tiger

Although I am yet to see any elephants in Sumatra, I have had two (very) close encounters with a tiger! When walking back from a transect in dense forest, me and my team suddenly heard a growl – no more than 30m away! We quickly moved away and, rather disappointingly (!), did not see the tiger – to be honest, that was the most unnerving thing about the experience! We walked back to Soraya camp (only 1km away!) on a different path!

A few days later, when walking to a transect, we heard another growl, this time 40 or 50m from use and only 400m from Soraya! Unfortunately, the tiger did not make an appearance on the camera traps located nearby, but it is still very exciting to know that another critically endangered species, the Sumatran tiger, is living so close to camp!


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