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Formerly CIFOR’s social media coordinator, Christi Hang is now senior associate at CGIAR.

The email said to prepare for five days of “flying camp.” In other words, we should expect to live aboard a bare-bones patrol boat.

I was about to embark on a journey with Yusuf Samsudin, a researcher at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR),  and a skeletal film crew.  We were searching for a herd of wild elephants on the Musi River in the Indonesian province of South Sumatra.

Little did we know at the time that we would never actually set foot in the boat.

“Finding the elephants was the hardest thing,” Samsudin said.

“The boat stalled the day before we were supposed to take off and they needed to get a new part, which didn’t come the whole time we were scheduled to be on the river. And then the next boat, which was supposed to take us to the next destination, also stalled out and we had to go by road, and that wasn’t great. We got stuck in mud a couple of times.”

   The film crew stop to talk to a group of local fisherman about recent sightings of wild elephants. Photo by Christi Hang/CIFOR.

We went to Palembang, the provincial capital, to learn about and document a biofuel project initiated by local farmers from Perigi Talang Nangka village, who contacted the researchers, seeking an alternative to burning peatlands to create more farmland.

In their search for more farmland, the villagers are also fighting for the right to use a 10,000-hectare area of the Padang Sugihan Sebokor Wildlife Reserve, which serves as part of a wild elephant corridor. The villagers say no elephants are ever present in that space.

CIFOR researchers hope that by planting native plants in buffer zone peatlands, the villagers will have a source of income without damaging the surrounding environment or taking away land set aside for the elephants.

After the first boat fell through, fortunately we learned that the local authorities had a smaller boat available. It was just big enough for the film crew, which took to the water and marshes from 5:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. for three days to track the elephants for the project documentary.

“When we arrived [on the river], the local wildlife rangers told us that the elephants were spotted closer and closer to the village,” Samsudin said.

Because the elephants are wild, they can be quite shy and their home range is extensive. This meant the film crew had to rely on local knowledge from the rangers and a Musi River fisherman to pinpoint areas with the best opportunities to see the elusive giants.

This trip wouldn’t have been a success without the local rangers who frequently see the elephants during their patrols.

   A cameraman films a Padang Sugihan Sebokor Wildlife Reserve ranger as he points out where the reserve’s wild elephants were recently spotted. Photo by Christi Hang/CIFOR.
   Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) researcher Yusuf Samsudin checks in with officials at Padang Sugihan Sebokor Wildlife Reserve upon arriving to discuss his plans to track elephants in the reserve. Photo by Christi Hang/CIFOR.
   Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) researcher Yusuf Samsudin checks in with officials at Padang Sugihan Sebokor Wildlife Reserve upon arriving to discuss his plans to track elephants in the reserve. Photo by Christi Hang/CIFOR.
   Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) researcher Yusuf Samsudin checks in with officials at Padang Sugihan Sebokor Wildlife Reserve upon arriving to discuss his plans to track elephants in the reserve. Photo by Christi Hang/CIFOR.

While the film crew was out tracking, a ranger took us out on the river in an even smaller boat so we could see restoration efforts along the riverbanks using native plant species, and local canal blocking efforts.

SWEET SOUND OF SUCCESS

On the last day at the site, while hiking inland from a spot suggested by the rangers, the film crew finally heard a loud trumpeting that scared them at first, but they soon realized they had found the jackpot: a heard of 11 elephants.

Setting up quickly and quietly, as the elephants were quite skittish, the film crew captured video, pictures and even majestic drone footage of the elephants before they wandered off in search of a little more privacy.

After tracking the elephants, Yusuf and the film crew moved on to Perigi Talang Nangka Village to check on the still-young plants. Although the project funding ended in 2018, the native plants are still young and it is not possible to see results yet, but Yusuf is optimistic for the future of the plants and for Perigi Talang Nangka village.

   Food supplies for the boat trip, including a lot of rendang. Photo by Christi Hang/CIFOR.

“It looks quite good but it will take another three months, six months, a year to see if the plants are growing well or not,” said Yusuf.“I would also like to see if other native plants will work as well.”

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This research forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry, which is supported by CGIAR Fund Donors.
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