Dyna Rochmyaningsih – One dawn in 2010, the sound of adzan from the mosque reverberated among the wooden houses of Seumanah Jaya, a village in Indonesia's Aceh province, on the north end of the island of Sumatra. The call to prayer woke up a 50-something-year-old woman named Rusmiati, who immediately went to her crude bathroom to take wudhu – the Islamic ritual of washing face, hands, and feet before prayer. With her face still wet, Rusmiati (who, like many older Indonesians, does not use a surname) came back to her room and spread out her praying mat on the pale wooden floor.
It was still dark outside but her heart was hopeful. The fruits from her 2-hectare oil palm plantation were ready to harvest. It had been three years since she and her husband, Ibrahim, had planted the palm seedlings, and bunches of reddish black fruits had finally emerged from the top of each trunk. For the couple and their five children, who sometimes ate only rice and salt to survive, the harvest held the promise of a better life.
When early sunlight sneaked through her window, Rusmiati put on her hijab and gathered empty glass bottles from her kitchen. She planned to hang them around the trees as a kind of windchime to deter the Indonesian wild boars (Sus scrofa vittatus) that sometimes uprooted the trees. From her backyard, a narrow, uneven path led downhill to her family's small plantation a kilometer away. But as she walked down the path, she ran into Ibrahim, who had already visited the field. He saw the bottles she held. "There's no use," he said. Rusmiati's heart sank.
When she arrived at the family plantation, she found disaster. It was as if a cyclone had ravaged the area. The tree trunks had been pulled entirely out of the ground and the fruits were gone. Out of 260 trees, only four were untouched. "Is it Datuk again?" Rusmiati asked. Ibrahim was silent. Rusmiati knelt down and burst into tears.
It was the third time Datuk had eaten their oil palm crops in ten years. Datuk, the Acehnese designation for a noble human, is also the title of respect given to the critically endangered Sumatran elephant (Elephas maximus sumatranus), which can grow to over 12,000 pounds and some 10 feet tall. Although scientists and government officials in the country have struggled to count how many Sumatran elephants are left, the Indonesian Elephant Conservation Forum estimates that as of 2019, between 924 and 1,359 individuals remained in the wild, down from about 2,800 in 2007 and as many as 4,300 in the 1990s. About a third of the surviving elephants live in Aceh, a politically conservative Islamic province that historically has seen less deforestation than the central and southern parts of the island, where industrial oil palm and pulpwood plantations have largely replaced wild forests.
Since the 1990s, Sumatra has lost up to 80 percent of its lowland tropical rainforests to these plantations. Recognizing Aceh's role as one of the final refuges for elephants and other wildlife, the provincial government has tried to limit the development of new oil palm plantations. But illegal loggers and oil palm companies are encroaching into elephant habitat, forcing the animals into human settlements like Seumanah Jaya. Eighty-five percent of the Sumatran elephant's current range extends beyond protected areas.
Before illegal loggers and corporate palm oil plantations began destroying the forests of East Aceh, Ibrahim recalls, people here used to live in relative harmony with elephants. His children would play in the forest; if they encountered an elephant, each would cautiously move away. But over the past two decades, dangerous encounters with wild elephants have become common. Rural Acehnese swap stories of elephants wandering through villages, injuring and permanently disfiguring people, or sneaking into someone's kitchen to eat salt and rice. Elephants occasionally destroy people's homes in the process, and sometimes the results are deadly: Between 2012 and 2017, elephants in Aceh killed eight people and injured 11.
Livelihoods have been upended as well, such as when the animals raid residents' small palm oil, chocolate, or nut plantations. Devastated and infuriated by the loss of crops they rely on for survival, some villagers retaliate by shooting or poisoning elephants; government officials found some 25 dead elephants in East Aceh alone between 2011 and 2021. This one-two punch of habitat loss and poaching is pushing Sumatran elephants ever closer to extinction.
Despite the tensions, Rusmiati still has the utmost respect for Datuk and doesn't dare speak ill of elephants. "I was scared of him. I could only cry," she recalls, speaking about that fateful morning in 2010.
As Ibrahim watched his wife's despair, he knew he needed to act. "At that time, I promised to solve that problem. No matter what" he says.
Over the next decade, Ibrahim has helped turn Seumanah Jaya into a model for other Acehnese villages that have recently found themselves struggling to co-exist with animals they have lived among and respected for thousands of years. With the Indonesian government more focused on economic development than with managing human-wildlife conflicts in one of its more remote provinces, small-scale, locally led efforts may be key to conserving Sumatran elephants – along with the Sumatran orangutans (Pongo abelii), Sumatran rhinoceroses (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis), Sumatran tigers (Panthera tigris sumatrae), and many other animals whose fates are intertwined with the giants of the forest.
Initially, Ibrahim had no idea how to fulfill his promise. But he and Rusmiati agreed that the solution wouldn't involve harming elephants. They knew that the animals are intelligent and sentient beings; Rusmiati recalls a time she spoke to a wild female elephant who surprised her on her way to a palm oil plantation. "Datuk, please let us go," she whispered. The animal seemed to understand and gently backed away.
"Our ancestors say they are humans too," Rusmiati says.
Rusmiati's ancestors weren't far off. Studies have shown that Asian elephants (of which Sumatran elephants are a subspecies) are highly intelligent animals, able to perform "complex learning skills and behaviors" such as forming intricate social webs and recognizing hundreds of individual elephants. Much like humans, Sumatran and other types of elephants live in family groups, pass important information from generation to generation, and can remember things that happened decades earlier. Asian elephants can recognize their own reflection in a mirror, an ability some scientists consider proof of their self-awareness. They use sticks to shoo away flies and to scratch their own bodies. Scientists have even observed elephants gently touching the bones of their dead, pausing at sites where family members have died, and coming to the aid of other elephants who are suffering – possibly demonstrating the capacity for grief and compassion.
Elephants are also incredible ecosystem engineers on Sumatra, says Wishnu Sukmantoro, deputy head of the Indonesian Elephant Conservation Forum. To sustain their massive bodies, the animals eat up to 230 kilograms of fruits, grasses, leaves, and roots from up to 69 species of forest plants in a single day. They also defecate 16 to 18 times per day – an act that recycles nutrients and helps maintain Sumatra's mindbogglingly rich biodiversity. Scientists have found that seeds in a ball of elephant dung are more likely to germinate than seeds that have not been consumed by elephants, likely because elephant dung acts as a natural fertilizer. And given that elephants' natural home range can span some 100,000 hectares of unfragmented forest and can carry seeds more than 50 kilometers from their source, they play a critical role in seed dispersal.
Over centuries, Sumatran elephants helped shape what is known today as the Leuser ecosystem, home of the last remaining old-growth forests in Sumatra. Covering an area roughly half the size of Aceh – about three times larger than Yellowstone National Park – the Leuser is home to not only elephants, tigers, rhinos, and orangutans, but also lar gibbons (Hylobates lar), Sumatran slow loris (Nycticebus hilleri), Sunda clouded leopards (Neofelis diardi), Asian golden cats (Catopuma temminckii), sun bears (Helarctos malayanus), and many other mammals, reptiles, and amphibians, as well as more than 500 species of birds and an estimated 10,000 species of plants. All of them depend, at least in part, on elephants to save their vast home. "Sumatran elephant is a flagship species. If we conserve them, we conserve the rest of the species in their home range," says Sukmantoro.
One night, while traveling by canoe to a conservation organization's basecamp to report on elephant conservation, I experienced a sliver of the undisturbed Leuser. In the darkness, the light of a full moon illuminated a small river bordered by lush rainforests. Elegant dipterocarp trees reached toward the stars, while the grasses and bushes on the muddy soil below hosted an orchestra of frogs. Although we didn't see them, swamp crocodiles lurked beneath the surface, and deadly venomous snakes slithered on the tree branches above. One had fallen from the tree and bit an unfortunate villager who was fishing in the same river a few days earlier. The Leuser is a place where beauty and danger live side by side.
In the weeks following the elephants' destruction of his small palm oil plantation, Ibrahim visited the office of the nearest environmental NGO, called Save Nature and its Flora Fauna, or SILFA. He offered his help as an elephant patrol volunteer, chasing elephants away from human settlements and farms with lights, noisemakers, and captive elephants ridden by mahouts. The experience opened his mind to the world of elephant conservation, but he came to believe that there must be more effective strategies to solve this conflict. Although one 2017 study found that community-based crop-guarding was about 90 percent effective at keeping elephants out of crops in Lampung, the southernmost province of Sumatra, it's a labor-intensive solution, and impoverished small farmers like Ibrahim can't afford to volunteer indefinitely.
Instead, Ibrahim dreamed of establishing an electric fence system along the village border that would give elephants an uncomfortable shock and keep them away – a strategy already employed in parts of Sri Lanka. "This is a problem felt by many farmers in Aceh. We need to find an effective solution," he says. Yet to fence in all 23 villages in Ranto Peureulak district, where Seumanah Jaya is located, Ibrahim calculated they would need some 40,000 meters of electric fencing and cost nearly 5 billion rupiah, or $328,000. Where would he get that kind of money?
"I am going to Banda Aceh," Ibrahim said to Rusmiati one day in 2013.
Despite having barely enough money to cover bus fare for the 427-kilometer trip to the capital city of Aceh, Ibrahim convinced his wife that the trip was necessary – not for their own sake, but to solve the elephant problem for the entire community. Over the previous three years, he had gotten more than 200 farmers in Seumanah and neighboring villages to sign a letter urging the government to fund their plan for electric fencing. Local government officials had already turned down the plan numerous times; getting approval from the governor in Banda Aceh was Ibrahim's final hope.
But a few days later, Ibrahim returned home empty-handed. "They said it was such a big money," he says.
For villagers in Aceh, the presence of government in handling human-elephant conflicts is rarely felt. Animal conservation falls to the Ministry of Forestry and Environmental Affairs, headquartered in Jakarta. The Ministry maintains a regional office in Banda Aceh called the BKSDA Aceh, and seven Sumatran elephant conservation response units (CRU). If a village experiences human-elephant conflict, a CRU worker is supposed travel to the village to guard people's crops and usher the elephants back to the forest. But Ibrahim says people from BKSDA Aceh have never visited Seumanah Jaya. People from North Aceh, the neighboring district, also say they've gotten no response from BKSDA about elephant crop raiding.
Nurdin, the field worker for BKSDA Aceh, says that's because the agency lacks sufficient staff to intervene in all cases. Aceh is twice the size of Belgium, and across that expanse there may be as many as seven conflicts per day. With only a few people working at each conservation response unit, BKSDA simply can't respond to all of them. Nurdin says he frequently has to drive for hours on muddy roads in the middle of the night only to be scolded by villagers for his slow response. "Like the villagers, we too are sleepless," he says. Just as importantly, mitigating human-elephant conflicts will be of little use to the elephant conservation if logging continues to decimate the forests.
In Aceh alone, the Leuser ecosystem lost nearly 50,000 hectares of forest habitat between 2015 and 2021, according to data from Forest Nature and Environment Aceh. And the rate of deforestation here is accelerating. Nusantara Atlas, an online platform that tracks landscape changes in Indonesia, suggests that nearly half of the total loss of forest habitat since 2001 occurred in those seven years. Using locations from radio-collared elephants Nurdin and his colleagues have found that some of that forest loss occurred along the animals' seasonal migration routes.
Over years since I began reporting on environmental issues in Indonesia, numerous conservationists (who have asked to remain anonymous) have told me that tangled regulations governing Indonesian land management is one of the main factors driving the animals closer to extinction. Indonesia, a country of over 13,000 islands, is governed by a central government in Jakarta. To help ensure that development projects would be evenly distributed, the Indonesian government granted autonomy to provincial authorities to manage their lands in early 2000s. But it was not full autonomy: The central government still has power to control and create regulations over land use, which means there are often two agencies governing land use. The Ministry of Forestry defines the protected and unprotected forest areas, while the Ministry of Agrarian Affairs and Spatial Planning determines land use and land ownership status.
In Aceh, for example, the lowland forest falls within the border of Leuser ecosystem, which ought to be protected by the Ministry of Forestry. But it can still be cleared for plantations because it is classified as an "Area for Other Use" by the Agrarian Affairs agency. This means that in addition to illegal forest clearing, local governments can legally sell forested land to wealthy buyers, who usually have a direct connection to people in power.
Smallholder oil palm farmers like Rusmiati and Ibrahim are largely unaware of this tangled bureaucracy. For them, planting oil palms is the hope of a better future, and their impact on the forest feels benign compared to the multinational corporations competing with them. Although small farms of 2 hectares or less make up 40 percent of the oil palm plantations in Indonesia, most are on already-cleared land, as small farmers lack the equipment and money needed to fell tracts of old-growth forests. Palm oil companies, meanwhile, can clear 5,000 hectares of forest in one swoop. They also pay local workers the meager sum of 400 rupiah (0.03 USD) per kilogram of oil palm fruits they gather, despite the risks inherent in the job, including being injured or killed by an elephant or tiger.
In comparison, a small plantation protected by electric fencing that would allow them to pocket their own profits seemed like a way for Ibrahim and Rusmiati to break free from their dependence on large oil palm companies. It could also allow them to again live in harmony with elephants. But when the government refused to fund Ibrahim's fence idea, it seemed the villagers would have to blaze a path back to co-existence on their own.
This wasn't the first time the people of Seumanah Jaya had lost trust in government officials. Thoyyib, a young man from the village and an ex-combatant of Free Aceh Movement (GAM), a separatist militant movement that fought for Aceh's independence from Indonesia, had felt betrayed when the governments, military, and GAM officials were involved in illegal logging business after reaching a peace agreement in 2005. The intact forest, which used to be a hiding place for GAM combatants and a safe place for wild elephants, was opened for exploitation.
In 2007, Thoyyib took out the long gun that had been lying unused in a closet since his years as a GAM combatant. He loaded it with bullets. Other young men followed his lead, hunting elephants and selling the ivory. In 2013, after witnessing Ibrahim's failure to get government support to solve conflicts with elephants, Thoyyib felt his move was justified. "We took this extreme step because of the government's ignorance. It was a frustration," he says. Between 2007 and 2015, men from Seumanah say they killed at least seven elephants every year; East Aceh and nearby Aceh Jaya came to have the highest rates of both deforestation and elephant conflict in the region. Seumanah Jaya became known as the village of elephant hunters.
As their habitat shrank and poachers decimated their herds, the elephants around Seumanah also seemed to grow increasingly aggressive. Villagers reported that an elephant killed a hunter in the forest, while others crushed people's motorcycles or stomped down the village's dusty dirt road where children played, rearing and trumpeting. Violence begat violence.
Each night, as the sun sank behind the horizon, Seumanah's men geared up to protect the village from elephants. They lit bonfires along the village border, facing abandoned oil palm plantations that were being reclaimed by forest – the place where the elephants were most likely to emerge. But often the elephants managed to sneak into the village before dark. When this happened, the farmers of Seumanah set off firecrackers to scare the elephants away. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it didn't, and the elephants ate their crops. Women and children stayed indoors, afraid to venture outside.
From the early 2000s to late 2020, the sound and display of firecrackers decorated the sky above Seumanah every night. "We were all sleepless," says Salim, another resident. It's fair to say that the elephants probably were as well. And then, just when it felt like the people and the elephants couldn't live in close proximity any longer, Ibrahim's persistence began to pay off.
In 2014, Ibrahim's vocal attempts to solve the human-elephant conflict in Seumanah attracted the attention of Rudi Putra, an Acehnese biologist and rhino tracker who in 2013 founded a nonprofit called the Leuser Conservation Forum (FKL). Putra came to Ibrahim's house and recruited one of Ibrahim and Rusmiati's sons, Junaidi, to work with him. In 2019, FKL began helping villagers in Seumanah set up an electric fencing system.
At first, "FKL only provided the solar cells, wires, and wooden poles," says Hidayat Lubis, FKL's field manager in East Aceh. But Junaidi knocked on the door of all 50 homes in Seumanah and asked his neighbors to pitch in to cover construction costs. He came back with 13 million rupiah, or about $831 USD. "It wasn't enough to cover everything. So we asked the villagers to participate in installing the fence," Junaidi says. The villagers were glad to lend a hand. One even donated land for the solar power station that provides the fence's electricity.
Together, the people of Seumanah and FKL – which partners with international conservation groups such as the Rainforest Trust and Global Conservation – installed a 17.4 kilometer-long wire powered with low-volt electricity along the border of Seumanah. This along with GPS technology that allows wildlife managers to track the whereabouts of collared elephants is helping to protect the village from elephants, and the elephants from villagers. FKL also collaborates with government officials to collect radio-collar data on wildlife presence and destroy illegal hunting snares. It has begun helping villages develop alternative sources of income, such as harvesting wild honey from intact forest. Perhaps most significantly, the organization has also restored thousands of hectares of forest once occupied by illegal palm oil plantations. FKL now employs 300 staff and volunteers, making it the largest locally-led conservation organization in Indonesia. "Working with local communities is the strength of FKL," says Lubis.
One starry night in September 2022, seven young men in black T-shirts and blue jeans gathered on the porch of Ibrahim's home. Some sat on a dusty wooden bench; others lounged on the porch floor. The smoke of their cigarettes filled the air, as did their laughter. Today, firecrackers are a thing of the past, and friendly chatter has replaced the tense atmosphere. "Thanks God, we finally have a power fencing system," says Ibrahim.
The group had assembled this night to patrol the electric fence's power station uphill from Ibrahim's house. A few hours before, data from GPS-collared elephants had showed that a group of about 30 animals had gathered about 2 kilometers from the fence. The men were there to make sure the elephants didn't come any closer.
As the young men set off, Lubis, Ibrahim, and Junaidi remained, moving inside to the living room floor. "We're counting on FKL," says Ibrahim to Lubis, who peeled peanuts while listening.
"It's the other way round. We're counting on the villagers too," Lubis replied.
According to Lubis, recruiting young locals is key to FKL's strategy for mitigating human-elephant conflicts in Aceh. In addition to the regular patrols they conduct, the young men are also better able to reason with villagers who are frustrated with the elephants, because they are part of the community too. And having a team member who lives in each village in East Aceh makes it easier for Lubis to respond quickly and launch a patrol when a conflict does arise. Since FKL installed the electric fence in 2019, there have been no human-elephant conflicts in Seumanah. (Previously, Rusmiati says she heard about near-daily conflicts, though there's no official data to back this up.)
But because of the cost and the ongoing maintenance that villagers must take on themselves, few other villages have implemented electric fences. Today, Seumanah is still the only village in Aceh with an effective electric fence system.
"We have limited financial and human resources, so we haven't expanded our program to other districts," says Lubis. As a result, villagers outside Seumanah continue to experience what Ibrahim and Rusmiati faced 12 years ago. And elephants are still being killed by angry men with few other options for income. But Seumanah Jaya, at least, shows that with an upfront investment and ongoing effort, coexistence is possible.
Today, most people in Seumanah support elephant conservation. Thoyyib, the former elephant hunter, turned in his long gun to a local police station in 2016; he now works in an East Aceh Conservation Response Unit and has formed a close bond with a captive female elephant who was injured in a conflict with a person. He also manages a boarding school that teaches Islamic environmental values. Ibrahim and other villagers regularly weed shrubs and bushes along the electric fence, making sure it's in good working order. And Rusmiati finally has her own oil palm plantation, which allows her to feed her family meals like Sumatran chicken curry or fried fish with chili sauce in addition to rice. The living room inside her home is now tiled, and the family even has a parabolic antenna that can capture international TV channels. Every evening, Ibrahim uses it to watch a nature documentary.
As she walked through her palm oil plantation one day in early September, Rusmiati paused to look up at a 10-meter-tall tree. "It was one of the survivors," she says, recalling the morning in 2010 when she knelt among the wreckage of her hard work and cried. Around the survivor, shorter oil palm trees were thriving, sprouting bunches of reddish black fruits. These are the fifth batch of oil palm trees she and Ibrahim planted, and the first that survived long enough to be harvested.
Although she doesn't discount the value of her husband's perseverance, she also believes that her family's respect for Sumatran elephants has blessed their life and brought prosperity. As her ancestors did, Rusmiati – and a growing number of her Islamic neighbors – believe that anyone who harms elephants will be punished. "They are giants," she says, "and we are so small."