By S. Kramer
Located in the Pelalawan Regency in Riau Province, Tesso Nilo was designated as national park by the Indonesian government in 2004 to protect the endangered elephant and Sumatran tiger’s population. Tesso Nilo is the home of about 150 wild elephants, about half of the whole elephant population in Sumatra. It is part of Bukit Tiga Puluh conservation area. The Flying Squad project was established by the WWF and the Dept. of Conservation of Riau Province to tackle the human-elephant conflict in the area by using a group of tamed elephants to push wild elephants back to the jungle, away from human populated area.
As we flew above the area of south Sumatra, we were presented with the view of neat green patches of palm plantation covering the vast expanded area of what used to be a dense rainforest, former home of Sumatran tiger, rhinos, elephants, and orangutans among others. Where do they have to live now? The monotonous view of palm trees plantations, although appears beautiful, made us realize how serious the deforestation activities has been. No wonder that every year they experience forest fire in this area which also affected the neighboring countries like Malaysia and Singapore.
After a restful night in Pekanbaru the capital of Riau, we left for Tesso Nilo accompanied by local WWF staff. The uneventful road trip takes about 4 hours with the last leg of the trip going through the palm trees plantation on a dirt road. The encroachment problem in Tesso Nilo is apparently still ongoing. People came to claim a piece of land in the protected area and built their houses or open the forest for palm plantation. At some point of the trip, we past a short stretch of a paved road passing through a small village, and we were told that the big house was the home of the village chief who deserves to have a paved road.
When we arrived at the guest house in Tesso Nilo we were greeted by the staff who brought us a glass of cool ginger lime drink. Then, we joined the staff to cook brownies for the elephants. It consists of rice husks, chopped corn, and palm sugar, cooked in a big pot over a bonfire. The mix was then cooled down overnight and made into brownie balls.
After breakfast, we started the day with giving a bath ritual to all the squad members. There were 6 elephants altogether working as a group. One female elephant named Lisa was absent because she was heavily pregnant. After the refreshing bath, they get their treats of brownie balls that we cooked the day before. It was rather a scary funny experience to hand feed the elephant since we have to put the food into its big mouth while its trunk flying around free, ready to hit us anytime.
I got to ride on an old gentleman elephant called Rahman behind the Mahout (trainer). We went through the forest area where the elephants roam overnight, passing small streams up and down the hills and valley and finally arrived on a waterhole where the elephants usually take a bath in the morning. The guide asked us if we want to bathe the elephant and I agreed immediately. The guide took the saddle, asked the elephant to kneel down and helped me to get back to its back again. Then he led the elephant into the water, brownish black from humus and organic materials leached by the rains from the peat soil. On top of the elephant’s back I could still keep myself dry until the elephant started to kneel down into the bottom of the river taking me into the refreshing black water. Then it was my turn to work scrubbing and cleaning the elephant’s back. After a half hour of refreshing spa, we got out of the water and continued our journey back to the lodge.
On June 1st, we received news that Lisa gave birth to a healthy baby girl in front of CCTV camera.