The Forgotten Elephants of the Leuser Ecosystem
Text and Photos by Paul Hilton
Two birds just miss the windscreen as our 4×4 drives across a palm oil plantation. A lone tree stands out in the distance––the forest has been cleared all around and the earth has been stripped bare to make way for more and more palm oil. Beyond this clearance, the calls of hornbills can be heard and pristine rainforest still stands.
Newly cleared land on a palm oil plantation, Pt Tuilsng Raya, Aceh Timor, within the Leuser ecosystem, August 2015.
I’m on assignment for Rainforest Action Network (RAN), documenting both the beauty and the destruction of the lowland rainforests of the Leuser Ecosystem on the island of Sumatra, Indonesia. The Leuser Ecosystem is a 2.6 million hectare biodiversity hotspot containing mountains, tropical rainforest, lowland forest and peat swamps. It is the last place on Earth where critically endangered Sumatran elephants, tigers, rhinos and orangutans still roam side by side. Millions of people living in the province of Aceh rely on the Leuser Ecosystem for their food, water and livelihoods.
Forest canopy in the Leuser ecosystem, August 2015. Photo: Paul Hilton for RAN
Sadly, the majestic Leuser Ecosystem is under constant threat from the palm oil industry, as well as from logging, mining and road development. As I write this, vast areas of land are being cut, cleared, burned and drained to make way for industrial palm oil plantations. Palm oil is a vegetable oil found in roughly half of packaged goods sold in grocery stores and is a leading cause of rainforest and peatland destruction, as well as human and labor rights abuses.
Our 4×4 rolls up to a river that runs into the very heart of the Leuser Ecosystem––a favorite river of Sumatran elephants––and we prepare for the next leg of our journey, assembling the team, porters and guide. Once a long boat is packed with enough supplies for a week, we set off up river as the sun sets. In the deepening night, we travel for three or four hours up river in search of a good campsite.
Thomas leaf monkey in the Leuser ecosystem, August 2015. Photo: Paul Hilton for RAN
Pristine rainforest and palm oil plantations line the riverbank as we boat past, and the occasional gibbon call manages to penetrate the monotone-noise of the outboard motor. Thomas leaf monkeys look on.
It’s now dark and a light flickers off and on. I can just make out a figure under the full moon and the boat slows to get a better look. Much to my surprise, an old man is sitting on the bank, fishing. We pull alongside and ask him if he’s seen any wildlife, but he doesn’t answer. More lights start to appear on the bank near the man and I quickly understand why he hasn’t responded––behind the lights are men carrying AK-47’s. Poachers. A very intense moment, but unfortunately it’s too dark to take a photo.
The poachers quickly jump into a boat and speed off further up the river. It is getting late and the forest cover is too thick to set up camp, so we push on.
Back in the boat we head down river, in the opposite direction of the poachers, and come across a small hut that has been used by poachers in the past. Below the small structure we find a steel snare used to catch everything from porcupines to elephants. We choose this spot to set up camp.
A village house is pictured on a migration route of Sumatran elephants. Elephant conflicts in these areas are becoming far to common. Photo: Paul Hilton for RANLeuser ecosystem, August 2015. Photo: Paul Hilton for RAN
The following morning we say goodbye to the boat team and head out on foot. Our guide, Raja, swings his machete through the thick undergrowth.
We walk for several days up and down valleys in search of signs and eventually find the trail we’ve been looking for. Elephant footprints are hard to miss and the closer I look at the prints, I notice a whole host of species have used this trail as well.
A rainstorm recently moved through the area and now tadpoles dart from side to side in the deep footprints, a flying tree frog sits nearby with huge webbed feed that help it to glide through the treetops.
A Wallace’s flying frog ( Rhacophorus nigropalmatus ) pictured in the Leuser ecosystem, August 2015. Photo: Paul Hilton for RANLeuser ecosystem, August 2015. Photo: Paul Hilton for RAN
We continue along the trail and I can’t help but notice the constant gardening performed by the elephants as they move through the forest. Different plant species are pulled out of the ground or slightly pruned and seeds are distributed along this ancient migration route.
It’s late so we set up camp right on the elephant trail. It’s the only cleared area and I can feel their footprints under my sleeping bag.
At first light, we pick up the trail again, and follow the tracks up and down valleys until we finally catch up with the herd. We can’t see the elephants yet, but we can definitely hear them grazing on the trees.
Positioning ourselves on the side of a mountain, we watch in awe as banana tree are promptly devoured one-by-one in the canopy.
The herd moves toward another valley and we follow them through some of the thickest jungle I’ve ever encountered. Trying to get a photo of wild elephants in the rainforest is much harder than I ever imagined. The undergrowth is so thick, you have to be just meters away to get a photo.
Once again we wait on the side of a hill, this time looking down on the elephants. People start shouting across the valley and all of a sudden the elephants are moving back up the hill directly towards us. We all hide. One elephants passes first, then a young male, and then the matriarch.
We are now surrounded by one of the last herds of the most critically endangered elephants in the world. Holding my breath, I try to take a photo.
Critically endangered Sumatran elephants pictured in the Leuser ecosystem. There are less that 1000 wild Sumatran elephants left, according to WCS. Photo: Paul Hilton for RAN
As the elephants pass, we make a run for it towards a log and quickly climb up to get a better vantage point of the area. The sun has set now, and night is quickly moving in.
Once again, the elephants start to surround us one after the other as they emerge from the forest. I manage to take a photo while struggling to keep my balance on the log. I put down the camera as they approach. Only meters away a trunk appears from under a banana leaf and tries to make contact with us, causing us to jump off the log with surprise.
I don’t feel scared, but a kind of sadness overwhelms me. Elephants are a highly socialised and intelligent species and hold a wealth of knowledge that is passed down through the generations. The gentle creatures before us are one of the last great herds of forgotten elephants.
The future of the critically endangered Sumatran elephant hangs on a thread. Palm oil plantations have converted 90 percent of prime Sumatran elephant habitat to a monoculture desert. The lowland rainforests of the Leuser Ecosystem are the world’s best remaining habitat for the Sumatran elephant yet they are being bulldozed, often illegally, for palm oil everyday. As palm oil encroaches into these critical forests, important elephant migration corridors are being destroyed, making it harder for elephants to find adequate food and water and pushing these magnificent animals to the brink of extinction.
Mahout’s wait to head out on patrol at one of the Conservation Respone Units (CRU). Elephants are used to drive wild elephants back into the jungle away from plantations and villages.Sumatra, Indonesia. Photo: Paul Hilton
Elephant and human conflict are also at an all-time high. Wildlife crime is one of the largest illegal trades in the world right now, after narcotics, human-trafficking and counterfeiting. The demand for ivory spans the globe and today there is not one safe haven for elephants. It’s suspected that there are fewer than 1,000 Sumatran elephants left, with those numbers dropping rapidly.
Back in the forest, the matriarch leads the herd to a clearing next to a village house. At the last light, I watch the elephants fall into position, silhouetted in the dusk and standing side by side. That memory will stay with me forever.
We set up camp that night on a cleared section of land further down the valley with some locals who are trying to carve out a living by growing cacao, papau and bananas.
I head to the river for a wash. It’s black, but my headlamp makes out the big stones as I find a spot to sit down. The cold water is a shock to my body. Normally this is one of the simple pleasures on these kinds of assignments, but for some reason I feel really uncomfortable. I strain to hear over the flowing water, but decide to move back to camp. As I do, I hear the elephants moving down the river towards our camp. They must have been 50 meters away from me.
Villagers in Cot girek use fire torchers to prevent elephants approacing their plantation, Leuser ecosystem, August 2015. Elephant conflicts in these areas are becoming far to common. Photo: Paul Hilton for RAN
As the elephants get closer, two farmers light fire torches and start waving them back and forth in the air.
That night the elephants passed through without incident, and the following morning the valley was quiet.
The next morning, as we leave the valley of elephants behind, we hear the news that a historic ruling against rogue palm oil company, PT Kallista Alam, has been upheld in the Indonesian Supreme Court for the company’s decimation of the Tripa peat swamp. The company has been ordered to pay fines totaling US$25.6 million, and a large portion of that capital will be used for restoration of the peat swamp. Known as the Orangutan Capital of the world, the Tripa peat swamp is on the far west coast of the Leuser Ecosystem.
This precedent setting verdict against PT Kallista Alam gives me hope but more urgently needs to be done to save the Leuser Ecosystem. Palm oil companies must immediately stop clearing rainforests and peatlands inside the Leuser Ecosystem and the permanent protection of this priceless ecosystem must be secured––the survival of the Sumatran elephant depends on it.
You can take action today to protect the Leuser Ecosystem. Join Rainforest Action Network in calling on the three biggest buyers of palm oil from the Leuser Ecosystem region—Musim Mas Group, Wilmar International and Golden Agri-Resources—to enforce a moratorium on the clearance of rainforests and peatlands in the Leuser Ecosystem.
Support the work of the International League of Conservation Photographers by donating at this link.