By Bambang Muryanto
The transfer of two Sumatran elephants from their natural habitat at the Seblat Elephant Conservation Center in Bengkulu to Gembira Loka Zoo in Yogyakarta has met with protest from environmental activists.
Activists from the Animal Indonesia group expressed opposition on Wednesday by standing mutely beside an elephant statue placed at the Kilometer Zero area in central Yogyakarta.
Their faces disguised by elephant masks, they displayed posters demanding the protected Sumatran elephants be returned to Seblat.
“We condemn the transfer. It’s like transferring them from heaven to hell,” said Animal Indonesia spokesperson Elizabeth Laksmi, whose organization is based in Malang, East Java.
The beasts arrived at Gembira Loka Zoo, a favorite weekend getaway for Yogyakarta families, earlier this month.
Elizabeth claimed that the two female elephants — Shinta, 23 years old, and Natasya. 24 — lived a better live in Seblat, where they were allowed to enter a 7,000-hectare area of forest seven times a month.
“The elephants used to get all the perks of nature; they ate natural foods and minerals, they drank from and bathed in flowing rivers,” Elizabeth said.
At the zoo, on the other hand, the elephants would be kept in cages and drink from stagnant water, she said, adding that, moreover, they would be distressed at being separated from their herd.
A change in conditions could also trigger stress in mammals, she said. In Seblat the elephants only met certain people; in the zoo they would engage with many, some of whom would ride on their backs as part of the entertainment on offer, she claimed.
“We oppose the transfer and demand the elephants be returned,” Elizabeth said.
Separately, Gembira Loka Zoo director Djoko Tirtono said that the transfer of the two elephants was legal and had the consent of the authorities.
He explained that the move was stipulated in two letters from the Environment and Forestry Ministry and the Directorate General of Forest Protection and Natural Conservation on the licenses to keep wild species for the conservation institution of Gembira Loka Zoo and Park.
He also said that the Yogyakarta Natural Resource Conservation Agency (BKSDA) had stated that the zoo fulfilled the required criteria to have two additional elephants.
“People may disagree with the transfer, but if they’re asking for the return of the animals then the request must be addressed to the Forestry Ministry, not us,” Djoko said.
He further said that since the two elephants had been nurtured and trained at the Seblat conservation center since they were very small, they would not survive if they were released into the wild.
“We needed two additional female elephants because the sex ratio of the animals in our zoo was not balanced,” said Djoko, adding that the pair of beasts was still owned by the state.
He revealed that the zoo had a total of eight elephants, two male and six female. Ideally, he said, the sex ratio was one male to five females.
The two transferred elephants have been placed in a large cage together with the zoo’s other elephants.
In 2012, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), an international conservation body, listed Sumatran elephants as a critically endangered species.
Their numbers have been fast declining in the past 25 years. Excessive land conversion and over-hunting — in particular illegal poaching — are two of the biggest threats faced by Sumatran elephants in their habitat. The stalking and killing of the species has also become more intense since deforestation for oil palm plantations has destroyed their natural habitat.