Our last day in Bukit Lawang, we packed our things and left our second home. After a short visit to the Friday market, we loaded into SUVs and trucks and headed to Tangkahan to see some elephants and learn about human-elephant conflict mitigation. We drove for 2 hours, through endless oil palm trees, stopping periodically for our guide, Didi, to share some bit of information. Didi explained to us that much of the land we were driving through used to be individual- and family-owned rubber trees. When it was rubber trees, people planted various foods and medicinal plants around the rubber trees. Unfortunately, the palm companies sprayed chemicals around the palm trees, leaving only a scrubby grass to grow.
The road was long and bumpy, and we had no real idea when we’d get there. A number of times, we thought we were there, but we just stopped for a quick chat or some sort of exchange with the guides or drivers. Our excitement to see the elephant abated some as we were violently jostled in our seats, squinting through the dust kicked up by the tires. One student said to me as she clutched her stomach, “These elephants better be cute.”
The distance and the rugged terrain sapped our anticipation, but the most sobering thing about the drive was the endless oil palm trees. In nearly every official and unofficial meeting we had on the trip, oil palm was described as the greatest threat to animals, the environment, and local and indigenous people. At one point on the drive, we stopped at the top of a hill where Didi pointed out a palm processing plant nestled in the middle of the trees. As we looked out over the valley, through oil palms as far as the eye could see, black smoke began to billow from the factory smokestack. A student remarked that she felt she was witnessing “Fern Gully”. But I digress… We were on our way to see the cute elephants. It is impossible to describe neither this adventure, nor any other adventure on our trip, without the backdrop of oil palm. Alas, the oil palm discussion requires much more than a short blog post.
Our Jeeps continued across the rocky road, periodically crossing tired bridges, carefully balancing their tires on wooden planks. Finally, our driver said, “There!” Down below, in a small clearing, stood about 5 elephants. Our exclamations quickly turned to hushed whispers and uneasy glances. For many of us, the pleasure with which we looked forward to seeing the elephants was replaced with confusion and discomfort. Each elephant was tightly tethered to a tree with a chain around its ankle.
We sat down in the sticky heat to a light lunch: a choice of instant noodle soup or fried noodles. Water bottles and warm fruit tea were distributed. There was some confusion over the situation of our hosts: Was this a rehabilitation center for elephants? Were these working patrol elephants? Most of all, many of us were disheartened at the site of these huge beasts in captivity.
While we waited for our food to arrive, Didi explained. We were at a Conservation Response Unit (CRU) named Namo Nggeltus, which was one of Fauna and Flora International’s Sumatran elephant and habitat protection programs. The CRU had a total of 9 elephants, made up of 1 adult male, 7 adult females, and 1 baby female. The baby was the only one born there. Three of the elephants had been wild, and came out of the jungle into Bukit Lawang, the town from which we had just arrived. These 3 elephants started causing trouble in Bukit Lawang and people got scared. They wanted to kill them. The government protected the elephants and forbade the killing. Instead, they were sent to the CRU in Tangkahan. Because they were wild and scared of humans, a semi-wild elephant was brought in to be the ambassador between the wild elephants and the humans.
The jungle habitat of elephants is decreasing rapidly, and elephants are entering human settlements more and more. Elephants are disturbing people and are a nuisance to oil palm plantations. Frequently we hear sad stories of elephants poisoned, poached, and killed. The elephants at the CRU in Tangkahan are used for various purposes, though the main one is patrolling the jungle for poaching, logging, and other illegal activities. They are taken down to the river to bathe twice a day. This is to cool them down and to prevent them from getting restless and depressed. Also, when tourists like us visit and participate in bathing the elephants, we provide financial support to the CRU.
We walked down to the river, where the elephants were rolling around and splashing each other. Most of the females clustered near the baby as it played in the water, while one female was curling trunks with the male. We were content to watch this from behind a rope, but much to our delight, the rope barrier was removed, and we were handed brushes to scrub the elephants. The elephants lined up and lay on their sides, ready to be bathed. Hesitant and giddy, we scrubbed their tough hide. After bathing the elephants we were given bananas to feed them. We all laughed as the baby elephant rudely poked and prodded each of us for more bananas, always spitting them out if they were too green. A number of us were lucky to get sprayed by the playful elephants. Matt Aruch laughed uncontrollably as two elephants took turns spraying him in the face and chest with water from their trunks.
After our unique experience interacting with the elephants and learning more about the Conservation Response Unit at Tangkahan, our spirits were lifted. Though our experience in Tangkahan was confusing and not what we expected, we had the opportunity to participate in an effort towards mitigating human-elephant conflict. And we got to bathe elephants. 🙂