January 29, 2009

Deforestation Brings Humans and Wild Animals Together

The rapid pace of deforestation has triggered a series of so-called human-animal conflicts in Indonesia.

The latest attack occurred on Tuesday, when two women were trampled to death by a pair of elephants on the northern tip of Sumatra island in Aceh province. Another six villagers narrowly escaped with their lives during the attack, which happened after the elephants entered an illegally cleared field from nearby jungle.

Just days earlier, two Sumatran tigers killed a rubber-tapper in Jambi as he urinated outside his hut, according to an AFP report.

Human-animal conflicts are on the rise in Indonesia, a nation with a growing population of 234 million and some of the world's largest remaining tropical forests.

As more people move into previously untouched forests, large animals such as elephants, tigers and orangutans are being deprived of the large habitats required to sustain their populations, according to Arnold Sitompul, head of Elephant Forum.

"The main reason (for conflicts) is habitat loss. There is a lot of habitat loss going on in Indonesia for plantations, mining," he told the AFP.

Without their habitats, animals sometimes move in to newly settled areas at the periphery of the forest, trampling and devouring crops and sometimes terrorizing villagers with deadly results.

"Elephants can tolerate some disturbances but if you go there and set up settlements it will lead to conflict... Why is that? Because elephants don't like humans and humans are scared of elephants, because they're big," said Sitompul.

Shootings and poisonings of animals in these conflict areas are commonplace.  Indeed, at least 45 elephants were killed from poisoning between 2002 and 2006 in Indonesia's Riau province alone, according to an AFP report that cited data from the environmental group WWF.

"In places like Aceh, conflict between humans and elephants and humans and tigers is increasing," said Ian Kosasih, the WWF's forest program director.

Although there are no solid figures on how many conflicts are happening throughout Indonesia, "in some areas you can't say it's increasing but it's still there ... I'm sure it's not getting better anywhere," Kosasih said.

Indonesia's Sumatra island was covered with forests until just decades ago, and is a hotspot for conflicts between humans, tigers and elephants, Kosasih said.

Kalimantanm, on Indonesia's portion of Borneo island, is the epicenter of a more one-sided conflict, with frequent killings of orangutans that stray onto fast growing palm oil plantations and farms.

Local governments and non-governmental organizations are striving to lessen the conflicts, but have so far found only mixed success.

After the most recent attack in Aceh province, the local conservation authority sent a team of 15 people, along with four tame elephants, to frighten the wild elephants back into the jungle.

But such moves are only temporary as forest habitats continue to be destroyed, said Aceh conservation agency chief Andi Basrul.

"If we don't all together protect the forest, then it will be difficult to overcome the elephant attacks, because it is their homes that are being interfered with," Basrul told the AFP.

"If, for comparison, it were our homes and yards that were being destroyed, of course we'd be angry. It's the same with elephants."


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