2010 The Role of Conservation Response Unit (CRU) in Human Elephant Conflict Mitigation and Strengthening the Forest Status of Elephant Conservation Center (ECC) Seblat-Bengkulu


Habitat fragmentation is one of the most serious problems affecting elephant populations. Fragmentation is primarily caused by human activities that use natural resources without sustainable management. The areas of habitat typically under most threat are those closely linked with areas of intensive human activity – growing population centers and improving roadways.

The Conservation Response Unit (CRU) model is one method that provides a strong connection between in-situ and ex-situ elephant conservation. This model uses captive elephants and their mahouts for direct field-based conservation interventions to support wild elephants and habitat. The likelihood of humans and elephants coming into conflict increases as human activities encroach into forest areas. Bengkulu Provincial Natural Resource Conservation Agency (BKSDA) has witnessed an increasing number of incidents of wildlife (elephant and tiger) – human conflict bordering the Seblat ECC conservation area. When elephants threaten lives, property and livelihoods, a response is required to ensure the safety of communities neighboring elephant habitat. If appropriate action is not taken by the responsible authority, local people are likely to respond themselves, perhaps by killing entire herds of elephants. Capturing elephants when they come into contact with communities is not a sustainable solution to this problem.

The Seblat Elephant Conservation Centre (ECC) is surrounded by several plantations – predominately palm oil plantations as well as an ex-logging concessions. The Seblat forest area acts as an important wildlife corridor and the critical link between the forest area of the ECC and the Kerinci Seblat National Park (KSNP). It is the most populated elephant habitat in Bengkulu therefore it must be protected and its status of “Protected Forest” improved to “Conservation Area”. This change of status needs to be issued by the Minister of Forestry. Currently the ECC “Protected Forest” can be easily downgraded to Production Forest or other functions by the local government.

BKSDA Bengkulu started the process to request the status conversion of the land and corridor close to the ECC in 2005. All project partners have submitted a recommendation with data to the Central Government Conservation Agency (PHKA) and it is hoped the minister of forestry will formally decree its Conservation Area status very soon.

In order to mitigate the human-wildlife conflict in the Seblat forest area in the long term, the CRU has also recommended the corridor secured and more forest blocks added which would connect the Seblat elephant habitat with the larger forest complex in KSNP. This 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 wild elephants’ visit. Attaching GPS collars to various elephants could provide a complete picture of the migration routes and habitat used by elephants. This knowledge would be very useful for future human-elephant conflict (HEC) strategies in these areas.

Project Location

The Seblat ECC was established in 1992 as a result of a growing need to house elephants that were captured following incidents of HEC in Bengkulu Province. The province of Bengkulu covers just less than 20,000 sq km and is surrounded by the province of South Sumatra and the province of Jambi to the east, the Indian Ocean to the west, province of Lampung to the south, and the province of West Sumatra to the north. 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.

The land currently assigned to the Seblat ECC covers 6865 hectares and is located on the bank of the Seblat River, providing an abundant supply of clean water for the elephants for drinking and bathing. Surrounding the Seblat ECC are a number of large scale palm oil plantations and exlogging concessions. With forest conversion into plantations combined with logging activities surrounding the ECC, 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 in the Seblat ECC area, however further, more comprehensive, studies are needed to verify the wild elephant population status. Due to the rich biodiversity found in the ECC forest area and the presence of captive elephants, the Seblat ECC area has potential to develop into an ecotourism destination.

Figure 1. Map of ECC Seblat and projected corridor proposed for change of status to Conservation Area

Improve law enforcement and information gathering

Basic improvements to law enforcement have been achieved through the regular patrolling of priority elephant habitats. Routine patrols are conducted an average of ten days every month in Seblat. Patrols make use of captive elephants and their mahouts and where appropriate, incorporate members of local communities, and operate in partnership with local government and protected area authorities.

Comparing successive years of data collected by the CRU, the number of illegal activities demonstrates a decreasing trend. The last remaining groups of illegal settlers in the area have been successfully removed. Unfortunately it appears the issue of encroachment will be raised again if there is no long-term commitment from the government. One of the encroachment groups claim that they occupied the land prior to the government designating the area as elephant forest. The other group that inhabited land along the road crossing the Seblat forest area built by a palm oil plantation company argues that they received permission from the BKSDA. This illegal settler group only agreed to leave the area if BKSDA closed the road. A meeting was held involving the group representatives, the head of the sub- district and the sub-district military commander and police. BKSDA is in the process of reviewing the agreement with the plantation and considering revising the agreement and closing the road.

All data collected by the patrols is recorded in a report to the Programme Manager every month. The forest around the camp is the central place of wildlife. The symbols on the map below indicate the sighting and identification of wildlife (tigers, deer, tapir, hornbill, pheasant, gibbon, bear, etc.) observed while on patrol.

The team also notes any illegal activities (forest fires, fish poaching, forest encroachment, illegal hunting, illegal mining, illegal logging) as demonstrated in the monthly record below.

The CRU monitors forest crime and project partners assist in its prevention through funding of legal fees, supporting the prosecution of the worst or repeat perpetrators of forest crime to remove them from region and to demonstrate to the regions citizens the consequences of illegal activity.

Mitigating Human – Elephant Conflict

HEC is a major threat to the Sumatran elephant. HEC results in a lack of local support to conserve this species and its habitat. HEC incidents threaten elephants as it has led to large-scale retribution killing throughout Sumatra, and to the capture and removal of elephants, which then remain in captivity. Achieving a sustainable reduction in the impact of human-elephant conflict requires a comprehensive and integrated approach. The CRU teams have been trained and subsequently developed their own capacity to assess HEC mitigation options in their specific working areas. The teams have collected detailed information from field-based assessments on various aspects of the issues of conflict.

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. The team found that to be effective in driving the elephants back to the forest. The human component of the team that sits on the elephant’s back also plays a significant role in driving the wild elephant herd.

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 ensures that HEC issues do not create animosity in the local community.

Education and/or awareness-raising

Community visit and awareness continue to be conducted on a regular basis as part of the patrol’s duties. Villages are visited and provided with brochures and leaflets. Teams also provide education to the land encroachers. This is a persuasive approach to the local community, the majority who are not aware of the importance of forest protection. School visits are also been conducted on regular basis.

Mahout Workshop

A major goal for the International Elephant Foundation is the annual Mahout Workshop, initiated and developed by IEF four years ago. The goal of the workshop is to provide information and training in order to build capacity among the mahouts. Improving the knowledge and capability of mahouts improves the care and welfare of the captive elephants and makes use of this human resource for wildlife conservation. The 2009-2010 Indonesian Mahout Workshop was held at the Holiday Resort Elephant Camp in North Sumatra on June 19th-21st, 2010. The workshop was attended by 71 participants which was the highest number of participants to attend the annual Mahout workshop to date. All of the Sumatran Elephant Conservation Centers (ECCs), Conservation Response Units (CRUs), and other elephant patrol units were represented as well as several zoos and safari parks from Java, Sumatra, and Bali. Most of the participants were Mahouts, but also some veterinarians and managers from private facilities were amongst the participants.

The main workshop activities included:

  1. Presentations from Sumatran ECCs and CRUs (Aceh, Bengkulu, Way Kambas, Riau, Tangkahan) about utilizing mahouts and elephants for conservation duties followed by discussions about the different experiences each had performing their responsibilities. This was followed by discussions on additional opportunities to utilize the captive elephants in conservation related activities in the future.
  2. Training in field navigation using maps and GPS units was conducted by the CRU Tangkahan team leader Edy Sunardi. This training was divided into two parts; theoretical background and hands-on practice in three locations within the Holiday Resort ECC area.
  3. Presentations and practical demonstrations about the needs and techniques to train elephants for medical procedures conducted by Veterinary Society for Sumatran Wildlife Conservation (VESSWIC). Although this topic has been presented during previous workshops, it was requested by the Indonesian Mahout Communication Forum (FOKMAS) to be repeated again as many participants have not attended previous workshops, as well as to underscore the importance of the health, welfare and medical care for their animal partners in general.
  4. Participants were divided into different working groups and discussed problems and needed improvements for captive elephant management in the different management systems of the Sumatran ECCs, CRUs, as well as in all Indonesian Zoos and Safari parks.
  5. A list of issues that the mahouts of FOKMAS would like to see addressed by the Central Government Conservation Agency (PHKA) was developed and will be officially sent to PHKA.
  6. The PHKA requested from FOKMAS that during the workshop, the mahouts from the various ECCs in Sumatra discuss the work each ECC is doing to address human-elephant conflict (HEC) in the various provinces. It is encouraging that the government is soliciting input from FOKMAS and the mahouts in regards to Sumatran elephant conservation issues.
  7. Although this was the fourth Indonesian mahout workshop, for the first time both before and after the workshop all participants completed a questionnaire so that workshop organizers could evaluate the participant’s opinions about the value of the workshop, the participant’s comprehension of material presented, and areas requiring less and/or additional focus.

Holiday Resort Elephant Camp, June 19th-21st, 2010

Pre-Workshop Questionnaire

Total participant : 59 people Participant´s work place
Mahout : 55 Elephant camp : 23
Veterinarian : 2 Private company : 14
Manager/Head of institution : 2 Elephant Patrol Unit/CRU : 13
Safari park/zoo : 9

Post-Workshop Questionnaire

Total participant : 65 people Participant´s work place
Mahout : 57 Elephant camp : 25
Veterinarian : 4 Private company : 13
Manager/Head of institution : 2 Elephant Patrol Unit/CRU : 15
Head of subdivision : 2 Safari park/zoo : 12

Participant’s comments and suggestions:

  1. Workshops continue at least once a year
  2. Identify significant problems in each elephant camp to discuss during next workshop
  3. Review the last workshop’s topics in the beginning of next workshop
  4. Invite more outside experts to speak about elephant training and invite experts from the forestry department
  5. Provide souvenirs for participants such as T shirts
  6. The next workshop’s participants should wear their uniforms and have an ID card (with a name on it)
  7. Make the Mahout’s member card to FOKMAS soon
  8. Also invite management of each institution/third party
  9. Have presentations that also involve participants from institutions other than elephant camps
  10. Publish Workshop’s proceedings
  11. More practical and field training in the next workshop
  12. At the request of Indonesian Zoos, FOKMAS should give elephant management input and instruction to zoos in Indonesia not located in Sumatra


There are still many problems in keeping the Seblat forest intact. Some of the main problems are:

  • The government needs to balance environmental conservation needs with the needs of a human population desiring to increase their economic status and creating jobs without destroying the forest. Palm oil is currently one of the country’s largest exports, yet plantations established to grow the palms for their oil destroy valuable tropical forest habitat used by orang-utans, elephants, Sumatran rhino, and Sumatran tiger.
  • One of the big oil palm plantations on the western side of the Seblat forest (PT Agricinal) has been clearing land illegally within the Seblat forest to grow more oil palms. The CRU is challenging this but it has been difficult without sufficient government backing.
  • The Central Government is not providing enough financial support to the ECCs
  • The Central Government is not putting enough forest area under legal protection therefore human-wildlife conflicts are escalating throughout the majority Sumatra which increases the need for CRU patrols to mitigate these conflicts.
  • There is an ongoing need for funding support for enforcement/prosecution purposes, as well as for costs of lobbying to increase the protection status of the Seblat forest area (i.e. inviting teams from the central government to assess the area so that the process moves more rapidly).

Organizations that were involved in this project or assisted in funding or supporting it

International Elephant Foundation (IEF), Fauna and Flora International (FFI), USFWS, FOKMAS, VESSWIC, PHKA, BKSDA, Disney Wildlife Conservation Fund, Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium, Riverbanks Zoo and Garden.

Project Successes and Updates

The CRU project initiated by IEF on April 24, 2004 is an ideal way to provide a useful activity for the camp elephants and responsibilities for the mahouts as a way to improve the work environment, encourage enhanced elephant care, and address important conservation issues. Due to the success of the ECC Seblat, IEF has been invited to develop CRU projects at two additional ECCs (Way Kambas and Aceh). Since this program was initiated, Seblat ECC is the only ECC where all of the mahouts have passed tests to become certified government employees.

The information generated by CRU patrol data is helping develop a master plan for the PHKA to manage conservation areas, plus develop means for the various ECCs to become more selfsustaining. As stated earlier, the CRU staff in Seblat, in association with the Bengkulu BKSDA, made a request to the Central Government for the change in official protection designation of the Seblat Forest and corridor between the Seblat Forest and the Kerenci Seblat National Park. This request has been well received and is still moving through official channels. Recently, the status of the specific area requested was changed slightly by Bengkulu BKSDA staff, and the request is now that the corridor and the Seblat Forest receive a status of “Taman Wisata Alam” which means “Tourism Park”, which is on the level of National Park protection but would be under the provincial BKSDA authority.

Recently a mining company has asked to exclude 2400 acres of the Seblat Forest from the protected status request, to allow a mining concession in exchange for adding a section of production forest north of the Seblat Forest. The section requested by the mining company lays along the Seblat River and would have included the main camp site. This request has just been denied by the Central Government PHKA.

In Aceh province, the CRU concept is gaining recognition and support from the local government. The head of Aceh BKSDA, Pak Abu, will include a mention of CRU as a tool to mitigate conflict when the new conservation policy for Aceh is drafted. The CRU concept will then have a good chance of being recognized by the Central Government as well. This is exciting news as currently 4 of the six Sumatran provinces with government run elephant camps have CRU units operating.

Training Field Navigation during the Mahout Workshop

Conservation Response Unit

Using GPS to note coordinates of reportable activity

Mahout Workshop

Evidence of a tiger in the region