Palembang, Indonesia – Present day South Sumatra looks a lot different from its heyday as seat of the powerful Srivijaya Dynasty – the first unified kingdom to dominate much of the Indonesian archipelago. Lasting from the 7th to the 12th century, the jungle was thick and loaded with the sounds and stomps of giants, the Sumatran elephants (Elephas maximus sumatranus).

A vital asset to the Srivijaya reign, tens of thousands of “war elephants” accompanied kings and soldiers into battle to prove the might and wealth of the dynasty.

The story is different today. Listed as “critically endangered” by the IUCN, there are less then 3000 Sumatran elephants left in the wild. Habitat fragmentation and increasing human population are the main threats the elephants face.

   Elephant habitat on this peatland is threatened due to fire and land conversion. Photo by Rifky/CIFOR

In the 1980s, the Indonesian government accelerated an ambitious transmigration program, settling people from Indonesia’s most populous island, Java, all across the archipelago. This led to a surge in Sumatra’s human population.

To make space for the new people, their villages and agriculture, forests were cleared. With their habitat now sliced up and migratory routes blocked, elephants were captured: sometimes killed, other times relocated to zoos, oftentimes transferred to “Elephant Training Centres.”

Sumatra has lost over two thirds of its natural lowland forest in the past 25 years- the elephant’s perfect habitat- with logging, pulp and oil palm plantations also laying claim to its demise.

Since 1985, the Sumatran elephant has declined by more than half. Today the elephants face extinction.

Now, scientists at Center for International Forestry Research say there is hope on the horizon. They think an unlikely remedy could help elephants and humans coexist in peace – bioenergy.

   Oil palm plantations are increasingly widespread across the Padang Sugihan wildlife reserve area. Photo by Faizal Abdul Aziz/CIFOR



Surrounded by peatlands, marshes and tributaries, the village of Perigi Talang Nangka is postcard beautiful and green. But local farmers were clearing the land the only way they knew how, by burning the surrounding soggy peatlands to dry them out for planting.

Drying out peat soil makes it highly flammable, turning it into a tinderbox in forest fires, with often disastrous consequences. This was famously played out in Indonesia’s fire and haze in 2015. Over 2.5 million hectares of land burnt, much of it peatland, exposing millions of people to toxic haze and tripling Indonesia’s greenhouse gas emissions.

In an effort to gain land for farming, local people have petitioned officials for a 10,000 hectare swath of land that is currently part of the Padang Sugihan Sebokor Wildlife Reserve and production forest, home to the few wild elephants left in the area.

The Malay villagers have coexisted with the elephants for centuries. Though they don’t want to take their land away, a moratorium on peatland burning by the Indonesian government following the 2015 fires has left them at a loss on how they themselves can sustain their livelihoods.

“Elephants need space and protection, while humans also need space and economic security from forest products,” said Perigi Talang Nangka farmer, Edi Rusman. “The elephants have lived here for hundreds of years. This is their original habitat, and we’re not willing to let the elephants go extinct.”

   Samsinyu (56 ) was examining the fish trap he had installed 3 days ago. Photo by Rifky/CIFOR
   Women in Perigi Village routinely harvest Purun to make plaited mats. Rifky/ CIFOR


Enter the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and South Korea’s National Institute of Forest Science (NIFOS), whose involvement had unlikely beginnings. CIFOR scientist Yusuf Samsudin was on a field trip with a team from University of Sriwijaya, when locals from Perigi Talang Nangka approached the group looking for help.

“The question came from the villagers, they wanted to know what alternatives they could plant that didn’t involve burning the peatlands” said Samsudin. “We needed to find a solution that would address the dilemma of food, energy and environment.”

The answer? Paludiculture. Though it doesn’t quite roll off the tongue, the wet agriculture and forestry technique for peatlands provides a sustainable solution, says Samsudin.

The benefits of this type of agriculture are big: first, it keeps peatlands wet, preserving both the incredible stores of carbon locked inside, and its ability to prevent the spread of wildfires; second, it can take place on degraded lands.

“Of course we want to see this succeed,” he says, hoping that paludiculture will prove enough of a success to end peatland burning in the area to make way for oil palm, pulp and rice.

“What’s more, we wanted to test native species on degraded land. But we didn’t just want to use the degraded land, but also restore it back to its full potential- serving our planet, nature and people too.”

The researchers planted a variety of local species: nyamplung (Calophyllum inophyllum), belangeran (Shorea belangeran), jelutung (Dyera lowii), bintaro (Cerbera manghas), meranti swamp (Shorea pauciflora), pulai (Alstonia pnumatophora L.), and medang maras (Blumeodendron kurzii).

   CIFOR researchers and UNSRI Planting as bioenergy materials. Faizal Abdul Aziz/CIFOR
   CIFOR researchers and UNSRI Planting as bioenergy materials. Rifky/CIFOR

“We chose these species for [their] various purpose, including food and biofuel,” said Samsudin.

A recent CIFOR study showed nyamplung in particular as having promising bioenergy and financial potential. What’s more, the scientists are currently researching the market potential of these alternative species.

“The government has a biodiesel program but it is very oil palm heavy, hopefully they will consider other sources of bioenergy.”

Amazingly, some of the plants also naturally repel elephants. If all goes as hoped, the restored land will mean the elephant’s habitat will further expand.

“The elephants simply avoid to eat Cerbera manghas, or Bintaro tree,” Samsudin says grinning at the prospect of a natural solution to the human-elephant conflict. This has been especially bad in the settlement villages on Sumatra, not part of this project, where elephants have ventured into villages that now lay in the path of their migratory routes and food sources.

“This should be designed carefully though,” he ponders, before explaining how the bintaro tree will act as a fence around the village. “Then we’ll restore the elephants home range with their favorite plants for shelter and food.”

   Wild Elephant group in Sebokor Village Forest, this area is part of Padang Sugihan Wildlife Reserve - Sebokor. Photo by Faizal Abdul Aziz/CIFOR
   Pathway made by Elephants when they walk in the peat area. Faizal Abdul Aziz/CIFOR

Samsudin and his team’s work has finished in funding terms, though he says his team are enthusiastic to check in with the community. Will the villagers continue on the path of paludiculture without him? “Absolutely,” he says, “the villagers are excited, they will continue to monitor and care for the plants.”

Perigi Talang Nangka village will have to be patient to reap the rewards. Though the rice paddies can be cultivated quickly, it will take four years before bioenergy and timber can be harvested.

Despite this, Samsudin does not doubt their commitment, “The community is very involved, especially the farmers.”

   Topan (17) is one of the Sumatran elephants at the elephant training center- Padang Sugihan SM PLG. Photo by Rifky/CIFOR
This research was supported by National Institute of Forest Science, Republic of Korea (NiFoS)
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