Elephant flying squad celebrates new members
Tesso Nilo National Park, Sumatra — Communities on the fringes of Sumatra’s Tesso Nilo National park mixed tradition and conservation on March 1, with a party to name and welcome the newest members of the WWF’s Elephant Flying Squad.
In Riau Province, the flying squad are four adult elephants and eight mahouts patrolling an area along the National Park boundaries, keeping wild elephants away from local communities and teaching villagers non-lethal ways to protect their crops.
About 80 guests helped Nella celebrate her 1st birthday while Wan Abu Bakar, Vice Governor of Riau Province, officially conferred the name Tesso on the younger calf, born three months ago. It is a tradition in Indonesia to have a naming ceremony soon after the birth of a baby.
When Vice Governor Wan Abu Bakar arrived at the Flying Squad Camp, he was greeted by a welcoming committee of the four adult Flying Squad elephants. Ria, Tesso’s mother, came forward bearing a string of flowers that she placed around the Vice Governor’s neck.
In addition to honoring the tradition, the naming ceremony and birthday celebration had a serious conservation purpose.
The head of Tesso Nilo National Park noted in a speech the success of the Flying Squad in minimizing human-elephant conflict around the park.
The park head called for greater collaboration for effective human-elephant conflict mitigation in the park and for efforts to safeguard the national park.
WWF is working to see the park expanded from 38,000 to 100,000 hectares to ensure enough habitat for a viable elephant population in Riau Province.
The Vice Governor, who also sits on the trustee board of the Provincial Team of Human-Wildlife Conflict Handling, promised to protect the forest in Riau Province that serves as elephant habitat.
As shrinking habitat in Riau leads to greater human-elephant conflict, he hopes that the newly established Provincial Team will be a success in mitigating human-elephant conflict, just as the Flying Squad has done in Tesso Nilo.
And how do elephants celebrate? With brownies! Following tradition, Vice Governor fed the treats (baked especially for the elephants out of corn, palm sugar, minerals and oats) to Tesso’s mother to mark the naming of her son and to Lisa, Nella’s mother, on the occasion of her calf’s birthday.
Tesso and Nella seemed mostly oblivious to the celebration going on around them, sticking close to their mothers’ sides. Tesso was born on 16 November 2007 and Nella was born on 23 February 2007.
Both calves were fathered by wild elephants and the pregnancies were welcome surprises to the Flying Squad mahout team. Nella has already begun following along with the Flying Squad on patrol occasionally for fun, but still finds time to play with Tesso.
The Vice Governor and guests were enthusiastic to hear stories about the life of the Flying Squad elephants, all of whom were moved from government-run camps where conflict elephants are kept to work with WWF in 2004. It was indeed a day of the elephant.
Information on the WWF Elephant Flying Squad:
In 2004, WWF introduced the first Elephant Flying Squad to Riau Province in central Sumatra, to a village near the newly established Tesso Nilo National Park. It was a way to bring short-term relief to the intense conflict between people and elephants there and to create support for elephant conservation among hard-hit communities.
Because the region around Tesso Nilo is being cleared so rapidly and the forest converted into agricultural plantations, elephants with no place to go are forced to wander in search of food, making farms and commercial plantations an irresistible temptation for elephant-sized appetites.
An Elephant Flying Squad consists of eight mahouts (rangers) with noise and light-making devices, a pick-up truck and four trained elephants that drive wild elephants back into the forest whenever they threaten to enter villages. It has proven to be very effective to reduce losses suffered by local communities near Tesso Nilo. Since it began operating in April 2004, the Tesso Nilo Flying Squad has reduced the economic losses of a local community from elephant raids.
The concept for the flying squad has a long tradition in India and other places, but had not been used in Indonesia before. WWF recruited mahouts and elephants from elephant camps that the Indonesian government maintains. These eight men and four elephants went through intensive training to create bonds and make them effective as a team to drive back wild elephants.
The project has been so successful that companies working in the area are starting their own Elephant Flying Squads to protect crops from wild elephant raids.