Tales from the Field

Cravings in the Hutan
By Sarah Conley, International Elephant Foundation

With only a few days’ notice I found myself in Sumatra for a meeting with conservation partners. A three-day trip into the hutan (the Indonesian word for forest) meant I could travel light with only a small backpack, even though we’d be staying in one of our Conservation Response Unit (CRU) camps for the night. The IEF delegation met with project partners and local officials first thing in the morning, and then ventured out into the field. After a roughly 5-hour car ride along narrow, winding roads that eventually ceased to be smooth or paved, a trip across a river in a handmade canoe, and a hike up a large hill, we arrived at the CRU Seblat camp just before dusk. The CRU overlooked the Seblat River and gave a gorgeous view of this pristine but threatened landscape. As the sun set the sounds of hutan became a constant loud hum which would continue throughout the night as we slept uncovered in the 90+ degree Fahrenheit heat with near 100% humidity.

The next morning the mahouts set out into the hutan to find the patrol elephants. The male elephants are kept nearby camp to protect them from poachers, but since female Asian elephants do not have tusks they are allowed to graze freely. Two or three to a motorbike, the mahouts took off as we started the way on foot. As we hiked a mahout would periodically reappear, one of us would hop onto the back of the motorbike, and together we’d disappear deeper into the forest. Over roots and fallen branches, through shallow streams and mud, up steep inclines and down again, dodging vines and tree limbs, the 15-minute bike ride definitely saved us time while adding some excitement. Thankfully the humidity camouflaged any beads of sweat that might have indicated worry.

We stopped deep into the protected forest, a patch of habitat that would not exist without the CRU Seblat’s establishment and efforts, where there was a small clearing with brush and grass at least 2.5 feet tall. From there we hiked down to a tributary of the river and sat in the shade where two weeks’ prior Sumatran tiger paw prints were found, and we waited for the mahouts and elephants. Sitting on a rock next to a river in the hutan your mind wanders. 

Photo Credit: Sarah Conley – Waiting by the river for the CRU elephants.

Out of nowhere I had a random but powerful craving for a Slurpee, something I safely had not had in 15 years. That urge quickly disappeared as a juvenile elephant name Bona started barreling towards me. Rescued by CRU staff as an orphaned calf found wandering a palm oil plantation, Bona led the way for the rest of the CRU herd. Together we found a deeper part of the stream and the elephants received their daily baths followed by health check-ups with two veterinarians who were part of our group. Once check-ups, husbandry, and discussions were complete, we made our way out of the protected area.

Back at camp my electrolyte jellybeans (which I bought as an impulse at REI before I left) tasted like manna from heaven. We had a humble lunch, met with the rest of the CRU staff, and then had to head out to the closest city to start our way home. Over 18 hours of flight time later I arrived back home in the United States. Like an oasis in the desert, as I stepped out into the airport out of Customs, the first thing I saw was a 7-11. I have never enjoyed a cherry Slurpee so much. Too bad there wasn’t an elephant by my side to share it with.

Photo Credit: Sarah Conley – View from CRU basecamp.

Photo Credit: Sarah Conley – Bath time in the river.

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