Part One: A Unique Elephant Facility
elHeidi S. Riddle, Riddle’s Elephant and Wildlife Sanctuary
To provide a safe permanent haven for all elephants requiring sanctuary. To ensure that the knowledge and understanding of these endangered species is improved and developed, through education, training, study and propagation.
In the past years, people throughout the world have become aware of the loss of the world’s elephant population. If something is not done soon to alter this course of events, this generation may be the last to see, appreciate and closely work with elephants. Elephants have been, are, and will continue to be important to people throughout the world. We marvel at their splendor and recognize the great void that would be felt in the absence of the relationships that have existed for thousands of years between humans and elephants. It is easy for us to agree that the elimination of the Asian and African elephant species is unacceptable, but what can we do about it? The problem often seems too far away, too complex to understand, and too large to resolve.
Riddle’s Elephant and Wildlife Sanctuary, a nonprofit organization, was established by Scott and Heidi Riddle in 1990, on 330 acres in the state of Arkansas. The sanctuary provides a safe, permanent place for elephants regardless of their species, gender, physical or psychological condition, size, or temperament. The number of elephants has slowly grown to its present number of 13, including African and Asian elephants of both genders. Several elephant calves have been born in the herd and several more births are imminent. The work of developing and building the facility continues, with an ongoing master plan in place.
The sanctuary’s mission is to ensure that the knowledge and understanding of these endangered species is improved and developed, through education, training and study. Accomplishing our goals requires us to be conservationists, educators, and scientists.
Wild elephants, and those in human care present special challenges; their size, intelligence, and social structure teach us that a better understanding of their needs is essential to offer them the protection they deserve.
First and foremost, the sanctuary aims to provide a safe haven for elephants. Our second objective is to ensure that existing skills and knowledge within the professional elephant care community are used, developed, and passed on to future generations of elephant caregivers, thereby directly benefiting elephants.
The sanctuary is implementing a sensible and effective strategy for preserving the number of elephants throughout the world by caring for a group of genetically different elephants so that their habits and physiology can be studied, and proper elephant management techniques can be taught. Every elephant contributes to the social structure of the herd, while living out its life in a secure environment. In addition the public is educated about the importance of safeguarding endangered animal species in order to maintain a balance in nature. The funding for all of this work has been raised through appeals, donations and grants; the sanctuary is a non-profit, tax-exempt organization and receives no government financial assistance. The sanctuary has gained worldwide acclaim for its research and education, as well as its practical work involving elephant care.
It is vital that the sanctuary participates fully with individuals and organizations caring for and managing elephants nationally and internationally. The founders of Riddle’s Elephant and Wildlife Sanctuary are held in high regard within the international elephant community. Their advice, help and knowledge are continually sought.
The sanctuary founders and members of the Board of Directors belong to various professional organizations such as the Elephant Managers Association (EMA) and the European Elephant Keepers and Managers Association. Heidi Riddle has served on the Board of Directors and as past President of the EMA, and is an invited member of the Asian Elephant Specialist Group of the Species Survival Commission of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
The sanctuary staff has committed their work to advancing our understanding of the biology of elephants, and regularly lecture and produce scientific papers about their work. The staff is currently involved in numerous elephant study projects with various facilities, universities and international elephant experts such as: Regular Blood Analysis of every elephant at the sanctuary in collaboration with Primedica Laboratories (Redfield, Arkansas), Hormone Assessments of every elephant at the sanctuary in collaboration with Hendrix College (Conway,Arkansas); Baptist Hospital (Little Rock, Arkansas); Dr. Dennis Schmitt DVM, PhD, Dipl ACT (Missouri State University); Dr. Janine Brown PhD (Smithsonian Center for Research and Conservation) Reproductive Evaluations in collaboration with Dr. Dennis Schmitt DVM PhD Dipl ACT (Missouri State University), Behavioral Studies in collaboration with Dr. Bruce Schulte PhD (Georgia Southern University), Chemical Communication studies in collaboration with the late Dr. Bets Rasmussen PhD (Oregon Graduate Institute); Dr. Thomas Goodwin PhD (Hendrix College), Pharmacological Studies in collaboration with Dr. Ursula Bechert DVM (Oregon State University), Ultrasonographic Studies in collaboration with Dr. Dennis Schmitt DVM PhD Dipl ACT (Missouri State University),Elephant Conservation Projects such as developing safe and effective repellents to prevent human-elephant conflicts in collaboration with the late Dr. Bets Rasmussen PhD (Oregon Graduate Institute); and Dr. Raman Sukumar (Asian Elephant Conservation Center, Bangalore, India); and assisting in the medical care and husbandry training of elephants in Sumatra in collaboration with the International Elephant Foundation.
Goals and Programs
Our long-term goals include successful conservation programs for these endangered animals, as well as continuing to develop our international educational outreach programs which include presentations to various wildlife, civic, youth and school groups as well as regularly scheduled guided tours of the sanctuary.
Our unique programs include:
The annual International School for Elephant Management, held from 1994 to 2004 and attended by elephant caregivers and enthusiasts from all over the world. This is the only comprehensive course of its kind. The curriculum covers every aspect of elephant care and management, from nutrition and husbandry, to foot care and reproduction. Over the years that the School has been in operation, students came from all over the United States, as well as Austria, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, England, Germany, Japan, Namibia, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Spain, South Africa, Sweden, Switzerland, and Zimbabwe.
Guest speakers have included elephant research scientists, elephant veterinarians, wildlife conservationists, zoo architects, and other elephant experts. In addition to extensive press coverage, the School has been featured on ABC World News Tonight with Peter Jennings, and Good Morning America on ABC television. The School is held in two-week sessions, one for experienced elephant managers, and one for interested persons who have little or no practical experience.
Participants learn elephant care and husbandry, free and restricted-contact handling techniques and the interpretation of elephant behavior. The handling and training is demonstrated with the sanctuary’s elephants.
The Elephant Experience Weekend for elephant enthusiasts. This successful program allows interested guests to spend a weekend helping with the care and feeding of the sanctuary elephants and learning more about efforts to manage elephants both in captivity and in the wild.
The Professional Elephant Care Internship, under the professional guidance of the sanctuary staff, the successful applicants work with African and Asian Elephants of both genders and various ages. The Internship begins on a one-month basis, however, applicants wishing to seek a longer period of Internship are considered.
The Elephant Ultrasound and Veterinary Procedures Workshop for Wildlife Veterinarians, a program where participating veterinarians learn evaluation techniques and the interpretation of ultrasound imaging, as well as semen collection in elephants. Hands-on breeding soundness and general health evaluations are performed using the sanctuary’s thirteen elephants – male and female, African and Asian elephants. The sanctuary staff has also organized ultrasound workshops in Asia.
For further information about this unique and remarkable elephant facility please visit us online at www.elephantsanctuary.org
Part Two: Elephant Camps Protecting the Sumatran Forest Through Conservation Response
Heidi S. Riddle, Advisor to the International Elephant Foundation
In the mid 1980s, with human-elephant conflict on the rise, the Indonesian government established elephant camps originally called “Elephant Training Centres” and more recently renamed “Elephant Conservation Centres” (ECCs). These centres were designed to house captured crop-raiding elephants and train them for logging and tourism activities. Today there are 6 provinces on the island of Sumatra with ECCs managing a total of approximately 350 elephants. The demand for trained elephants has been minimal, and with an inadequate budget allocated to the centres, many of the camp elephants do not have access to a sufficient food supply or adequate medical care. One of the major problems of the ECCs is the lack of useful and important work for the elephants and their assigned handlers (mahouts).
In order to provide useful work for some of these camp elephants, the Provincial Conservation Agency (BKSDA) of Bengkulu (western Sumatra) province, in cooperation with the nonprofit conservation organizations International Elephant Foundation and Fauna and Flora International set up a Conservation Response Unit (CRU) project in 2004 to crack down on wildlife crime, assess and mitigate human-elephant conflict, as well as monitor wildlife presence in designated areas of North Bengkulu province. This CRU unit, utilizing camp elephants and their mahouts for field-based conservation, was established at the Seblat ECC.
Protection and monitoring of the forest around the Seblat ECC is important as this area has become a vital reservoir for wildlife and is connected to the greater protected area of the Kerinci Seblat National Park through means of a wildlife corridor. The CRU patrol teams consist of forest rangers and mahouts with their trained elephants who patrol in and around the conservation area on elephant back.
As a result of this initiative, wildlife crime perpetrators are being caught, camp elephants are receiving a sufficient food supply and appropriate medical care, and mahouts, who were once only responsible for elephant care and husbandry, are now being taught how to identify and mitigate human-elephant conflict, raise community support and awareness of wildlife conservation, and gather valuable biological data using technology such as hand-held GPS units and are making a valuable contribution to conservation.
Seblat Elephant Conservation Centre
The Seblat ECC was established in 1992 as a result of capturing elephants following incidents of human elephant conflict in Bengkulu Province. The province of Bengkulu covers just less than 20,000 sq km and is surrounded by the provinces of South Sumatra, Jambi, Lampung, West Sumatra and the Indian Ocean. Natural vegetation types found in Bengkulu province consist of “wet” lowland evergreen forest and montane rainforest.
Fauna found in Bengkulu include tiger, elephant, tapir, rhino, deer, wild boar, civet cat, and various species of birds and reptiles. Surrounding the Seblat ECC is a number of large-scale palm oil plantations and ex-logging concessions. With forest conversion into plantations combined with logging activities in the area, the Seblat ECC has become an important reservoir for wildlife. Rough surveys carried out by the provincial Bengkulu Natural Resources Conservation Agency (BKSDA) have estimated the presence of 200-300 wild elephants.
The CRU is an important step in the development of long-term strategy to conserve Sumatran elephant populations and habitat through empowerment of the camp staff and community while improving the health and welfare of the captive elephant population in Sumatra. The CRU utilizes once neglected captive elephants and their mahouts for direct and successful field-based conservation interventions. There is a need to show the local communities in the Seblat area the benefits of supporting the ECC and the value of forest protection and wildlife conservation.
With the limited number of government forest rangers in Indonesia (less than 9000 personnel) compared to the large size of the conservation area (23,050,541 hectares) plus about 30 million hectares of protected forest, it is unrealistic to rely only on conventional forest management without a proper design of community based protection and management.
The CRU teams are composed of captive elephants and their mahouts, government forest rangers and local community. Captive elephants provide transportation during forest monitoring patrol activities, as a tool for gaining local community interest during awareness events, and driving away crop raiding wild elephants should conflict incidents arise. Mahouts, as part of the CRU team, not only take care of the elephants but also are involved in all CRU activities. Each CRU conducts patrols for 7-10 consecutive days a month during which CRU team members record sightings or evidence of illegal activities, human-wildlife conflicts and wildlife presence. The team carries hand-held GPS units to properly identify sighting locations, and a digital camera for documentation purposes. They also fill out report sheets and a narrative when they return from patrol and this data is provided to the partner BKSDA offices. CRU staff plays an important role in educating communities living in proximity to the forest about wildlife conservation and protection.
The Seblat CRU project goals are to:
- Improve the management of the captive elephants at the Seblat ECC;
- Manage the existing forest (6865 hectares) assigned to the ECC and the wildlife (elephants, tapirs, tigers, etc) in the forest;
- Assist in managing the corridor between the ECC land and the Kerinci Seblat National Park to allow movement of wildlife. This corridor area is the focus of a BKSDA request to change the land status of the area linking the ECC forest and the Kerinci Seblat National Park to a higher level of protection as a
- Assist surrounding communities in monitoring wild elephant movement to help mitigate human-elephant conflict, and involving them in the Seblat forest management;
- Monitor forest crime and assist in its prevention; and
- Conduct conservation awareness and education programs.
Improving Forest Protection and Management
Wildlife Protection – Wildlife poaching is usually related to the presence of illegal settlements in the area, as many of the illegal settlers own snares to trap wildlife. The CRU team has demolished many snares, including both active ones and those kept by the illegal settlers. Some active snares were identified as targeting tigers, since they were set on tigers’ footprints.
The CRU team works closely with the FFI Tiger Protection Units operating in Kerinci-Seblat National Park. In a joint operation between CRU and the Tiger Protection Unit, the team successfully handled a tiger hunting case, confiscating a tiger skin, bones and two hand-made firearms. In September 2006, the CRU team found three wild elephants trapped in a muddy hole left from coal mining exploration while conducting routine patrol in the Seblat ECC forest. Rescue efforts began immediately in very difficult conditions of thick mud, hard rain, and lack of light but it was successful with the CRU team driving the elephants back to their groups. The CRU is collecting data of wildlife sightings and signs, such as prints, dung, etc. The CRU is also maintaining records of wild elephant sightings to add to the database to verify wild elephant population status in the area.
Illegal Logging – Since the establishment of a CRU unit in Seblat, the team has handled many cases of illegal logging. Currently, illegal logging activities handled by the team primarily occur when the team expands its patrol area outside the ECC forest into the corridor between the ECC Seblat forest and Kerinci Seblat National Park.
Land Encroachment – The CRU found land encroachment to be the most difficult problem with which to deal. Most illegal settlers come from surrounding villages to acquire more land to cultivate crops. Right after the CRU was established, the team visited each group of illegal settlers and negotiated various alternative solutions.
Most of the illegal settlers agreed to leave the area if time were given to them to harvest their remaining crops. Some other groups left the area and returned to their original villages a few days after having being made aware of the situation by the CRU.
Mitigating human elephant conflict (HEC)
The CRU addresses human-elephant conflict mitigation not only as an effort to avoid further risk of property loss, but of equal importance is elephant conservation. The CRU teams have been trained and subsequently developed their own capacity to assess HEC mitigation options in their specific working areas. The pattern of human-elephant conflict, as expected, is intermittent. Teams respond as needed, often driving wild elephants back into the forest using the camp elephants, and recording detailed assessments of any site damage.
Immediate response to human-elephant conflict incidents has become a routine CRU activity in the area. Since the preliminary CRU activity in Seblat, the CRU has been successful in lowering the elephant capture rate to only one elephant in the five years of operation.
In order to mitigate the HEC in the Seblat forest area in the long term, the CRU has recommended that the protection status of the area be increased, the corridor secured and more forest blocks included that would connect the Seblat elephant habitat with the larger forest complex of Kerinci Seblat National Park. The new proposed elephant sanctuary size would be about 18,000 ha. It is also necessary to assess existing natural barriers and migration routes in order to be able to identify locations for artificial barriers or to anticipate the next cycle of the elephants’ visit. Attaching GPS collars to various elephants (another IEF funded project) will provide a complete picture of the migration routes and habitat used by elephants. This knowledge will be very useful for future HEC strategies in these areas. The presence of the CRU has done much to dispel local fears, and the existence of the CRU is helping keep the HEC issue under control. The continued presence of the CRU will ensure that HEC issues do not create animosity in the local community, which has already led to large-scale elephant killings throughout Sumatra
Communities in critical conservation areas are exposed to elephants in a positive context as CRU patrols pass through villages, and as they reduce human-elephant conflicts. These visits to the local communities living on the edge of the forest are used to reaffirm positive attitudes towards elephants and the link between elephant and habitat conservation, promoting a message of tolerance and understanding of the needs of wild elephants, as well as improving attitudes towards the intrinsic value of wildlife. Conservation awareness programs conducted by the CRU include school visit activities, village visits, slide and film programs, games and competitions for visitors and communities living in surrounding areas. Brochures have been developed with general information about elephants, conservation in Sumatra and the CRU project and are handed out during community awareness activities. Similarly themed children’s activity coloring booklets developed by IEF, FFI and the CRU staff are distributed during village and school visits.
Building the capacity of staff, community and partners remains a main objective of the CRU. With the establishment of each CRU team, capacity building has been an initial focus for staff and project partners. Training sessions have been conducted with topics covering survey and forest monitoring techniques including basic navigation using a hand held GPS, human-elephant conflict mitigation, and community awareness. Most of the CRU team members have little educational background, yet through a series of capacity building activities have been trained in assessing and selecting priority areas for CRU activities and field patrols, operating hand held GPS units, completing standardized data-sheets for forest patrolling and conducting HEC assessments. This empowerment has provided a sense of dignity to the mahouts, a yet unexplored potential source of human resources working for field-based conservation.
IEF continues to seek opportunities to build capacity of local CRU staff and partners and is interested in projects at the Seblat Elephant Conservation Center (ECC) in Bengkulu Province that will build upon, and further advance establishing the Seblat ECC as a self-sustaining focal point for elephant conservation. The information generated by CRU patrol data is helping to develop a master plan to manage the conservation area, plus develop means for the ECC to become more self-sustaining. The CRU project is also a model for other ECCs for wildlife conservation and forest protection in Sumatra by providing otherwise unemployed captive elephants and mahouts important roles in habitat protection and species preservation.
For further information about this project in Sumatra and how to support the global work of the International Elephant Foundation please go to www.elephantconservation.org