By Harry Pearl
In May 2014, Indonesian police swooped in on two notorious wildlife traders in the coastal town of Meulaboh in West Aceh. Acting on information gleaned from a one-and-a-half-year investigation, authorities seized five kilograms of ivory, a set of elephant teeth, and 650 kilograms of elephant bone.
The two men, who were arrested at a small restaurant in the port town, were also found in possession of a live orangutan, tiger cub, and pelts from numerous jungle cats.
Although a relatively modest haul by international standards, the seizure of ivory was significant. Last year the number of critically endangered Sumatran elephants that were shot, poisoned, and trapped hit a three-year high, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) — and the surge in deaths has been attributed largely to poaching for ivory.
Killings increased 55 percent in 2014, WWF Indonesia has reported, rising to 45 from 29 recorded deaths in 2012 and 2013. While dwarfed by the slaughter of African elephants, which was recently estimated to number in the tens of thousands each year, fewer than 2,800 Sumatran elephants are thought to be in the wild.
The conversion of forested land to plantations of palm oil and fast-growing acacia trees, which is harvested by the pulp and paper industry, has seen more than two-thirds of their habitat lost in the past 25 years, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Whole populations of elephants across Sumatra, Indonesia's largest island, have been wiped out as a result.
As lowland forest — the preferred habitat of Sumatra's elephants — has shrunk and fragmented, confining elephant to isolated patches in just seven districts, conflict between humans and the iconic mammals has increased.
Sunarto, who, like many Indonesians, goes by only one name, is a wildlife specialist at WWF Indonesia. He explains there were two reasons for the spike in elephant deaths in 2014. The level of human-elephant conflict in Sumatra is "very high" and increasing, he said, and demand for ivory is rising.
"In most cases in the last year, and previous, there has been an increase in the number of male elephants targeted and removal of ivory," he said. Only male Sumatran elephants have tusks.
The Indonesian Elephant Conservation Forum (FKGI) — a multi-stakeholder group, which includes non-governmental organizations and government representatives — offered a similar analysis to VICE News.
FKGI spokesman Donny Gunaryadi said poaching and retaliatory killings were behind 2014's toll. In some cases plantation owners and farmers asked professional hunters to kill the elephants, which can be considered pests, he said.
In February, the remains of seven Sumatran elephants were found just outside Tesso Nilo National Park in Riau province. A local wildlife agency spokesman said at the time that evidence suggested they were poisoned — the perpetrators were likely palm oil plantation owners, who considered the elephants a threat to their commodities.
Other instances of human-elephant conflict are not hard to find, but conservation groups say poaching is an equally devastating — and growing — issue, the scale of which is hard to quantify.
Confirming cases is difficult, wildlife experts and investigators say. Elephant carcasses usually decompose after one to two months, which makes law enforcement hard, Sunarto said. And rangers — the frontline for wildlife monitoring and protection — are poorly resourced and required to cover vast areas of parkland.
Another problem, Gunaryadi said, was that the majority of elephants live outside conservation land. "This is a real challenge for us, because the private sector mostly owns the area with the elephant population on it."
However, monitoring of markets and traders by Indonesia's Wildlife Crimes Unit, which is backed by World Conservation Society (WCS), suggests a thriving ivory trade in the country.
Dwi Adhiasto, the Indonesia program manager for the unit, told VICE News there were a number of illicit ivory syndicates operating in Indonesia, although the groups typically moved more than just elephant parts. Sumatran rhino horn, tiger parts, and the world's most trafficked mammal, the pangolin, are also traded.
Once elephants have been killed and their tusks hacked off, Adhiasto said, the ivory is usually sold to a middleman and then on to traders, retailers or ivory carvers. Raw ivory can fetch between $1000 and $1200 per kilogram.
The bulk of it will eventually end up in markets where it's sold side-by-side with imported African ivory. "Most ivory from Sumatra is sold to local consumers in Indonesia," Adhiasto said, adding it commonly took the form of smoking pipes and trinkets.
Adhiasto, whose organization works with authorities to monitor markets, middlemen, and ivory being imported into Indonesia, said most pipes that reach market are thought to be made of Sumatran or "hot" ivory, which is preferred by traders and carvers over African ivory. About 60 to 70 percent of ivory sold in Indonesia, however, is made up from African ivory, he said.
WCS's Wildlife Crimes Unit estimates between 20 and 30 pipes — a 22 cm pipe can sell for $250 to $300 — are sent to Jakarta's precious stone market each week from carvers in Sumatra's Way Kambas and Lampung areas.
Killing elephants and selling their parts is illegal in Indonesia, but arrests are relatively rare and prosecutions rarer. A number of markets in Java, Sumatra, and Bali sell ivory products openly. Over the past seven years only 13 traders of Sumatran ivory have been arrested, according to figures supplied by WCS's Wildlife Crimes Unit.
Many conservationists have panned the Indonesian government and law enforcement agencies as a result, accusing them of not doing enough to curb illegal trade in elephant parts.
As FKGI spokesman Donny Gunaryadi puts it, if Sumatran elephants continue to be killed at the same rate as the were last year, then before long they "will be gone, extinct."
Indonesia's Environment and Forest Ministry did not reply to emailed questions from VICE News.