Sumatran Elephant Field Project


(An independent project in conjunction with WWF-Indonesia)

Quick Summary

The government of Indonesia began establishing Elephant Centers on Sumatra in 1986 in an attempt to relieve human-elephant conflicts.  Today there are six Centers that hold approximately 400 elephants.

Indonesian veterinarians receive little or no elephant training and have few supplies to treat common health problems such as parasites, marginal nutrition, and wounds. External funding and professional support is critical to the welfare and survival of these unique Sumatran elephants.  Our project is designed to meet the long-term needs of these elephants and their caretakers.  (see our  extensive image gallery and below for a more complete perspective)

Project Newsletters from Sumatra

Full Review of Project

The "Pocket Elephants" of Sumatra
History of Elephant Centers on Sumatra 
Husbandry and Healthcare Issues
Riau Elephant Center
Sumatran Elephant Project Goals and Objectives

WWF Asian Elephant Conservation Strategy in Indonesia


The goals of the Sumatran Elephant Healthcare and Conservation Project are to improve the healthcare and management of Sumatra’s captive elephants and to facilitate their participation in conservation efforts.  Specific aims are to provide healthcare training, produce and distribute veterinary information (in Indonesian), and procure veterinary equipment and supplies.   

Funds for this independent project are raised by project coordinators Mikota and Hammatt who work in Indonesia (as unpaid/volunteer consultants) under the auspices of WWF-Indonesia.

WWF-Indonesia is actively campaigning to establish a managed wild elephant range in the proposed Tesso Nilo sanctuary, the largest remaining lowland forest on Sumatra.  A recent study  has shown that Tesso Nilo has  twice as many plant species per area as any other lowland forest in the world. Captive elephants will support this conservation effort within local communities through human-elephant conflict mitigation, park patrol, and education programs.

Tropical biodiversity conservation is a global concern.  Endangered Asian elephants can serve as a “flagship” species to facilitate preservation of this diversity.  Elephant ranges are vast – when elephant habitat is protected, tropical biodiversity is protected. 

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The "Pocket Elephants" of Sumatra

The endangered Sumatran elephant (Elephas maximus sumatranus) is the smallest (and perhaps oldest) of the Asian subspecies and is unique to the island of Sumatra.  It has been protected in Indonesia since 1931.  Population surveys conducted in the 1980’s estimated that only 2800 – 4500 wild elephants remained.  It is likely that even fewer survive in today’s fragmented forests.  The term "pocket elephants" was originally coined to refer to their diminutive size, and also reflects their survival today in the few  remaining "pockets" of lowland rainforest.

History of Elephant Centers on Sumatra 

Prior to 1950, the wild elephants on Sumatra moved freely in a rich and diverse habitat largely untouched by man.  The island was sparsely populated.  However, the population of Indonesia has more than doubled in the last 50 years and Indonesia is now the world’s 4th most populous nation. 

As a result of this population growth, the government of Indonesia instituted a transmigration program to relocate people from the crowded island of Java to less densely populated islands including Sumatra.  The increasing population of Sumatra began to take its toll on the environment as forests were converted to agricultural uses.  The rate of destruction has increased dramatically in the last few years due to the establishment of two of the world’s largest pulp mills in Riau province.

The combined effects of road development, logging, conversion of forest to agriculture, and human resettlement have contributed to the loss of thousands of hectares of elephant habitat.  As habitat shrinks, elephants are forced into conflict with humans.  The destruction of crops and houses results in injuries and deaths of both humans and elephants. 

Villagers faced with raiding elephants demanded that the government resolve the problem.  To these villagers, the elephants were just dangerous crop-raiding pests.  Occasionally, angry villagers have poisoned elephants.  Unlike other Asian countries, with strong elephant traditions, elephants are not revered in Indonesia. 

In response to these human-elephant conflict problems, the Indonesian government began establishing Elephant Training Centers (ETC’s) on Sumatra in 1986.  It was intended that the centers would capture and train “problem” elephants for use in logging, patrol work, and tourism. 

Because it has been several centuries since Indonesia has kept domesticated elephants, the knowledge and skills for their capture and training elephants was lacking. Thai mahouts and elephants were brought in to train Indonesians in these methods.

Today there are six provincial ETC’s (11 total sites) that hold approximately 400 elephants.  Projected demand for trained elephants has not materialized and the government resources budgeted for elephant care are inadequate.  It has been suggested that the ETC's should be called Elephant Conservation Centers” (ECC’s).  This term has gained wide acceptance, but has not been officially sanctioned by the government.  

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Husbandry and Healthcare Issues

A number of reports in recent years have identified veterinary care as one of the most important issues impacting Sumatra’s Elephant Centers.  Underlying many of these issues are management and husbandry factors that contribute to or precipitate medical problems. 

Clinical problems such as intestinal parasites, superficial wounds, and bloat often go untreated due to a lack of supplies and / or expertise.  Many wounds and deaths are caused by unsanitary capture techniques or training practices.  Supplementary food supplies are not always available, and mahouts are often insufficiently motivated to locate adequate natural browse for the elephants in their care.

Most centers do not possess the facilities, equipment, and supplies that are needed to provide basic healthcare.  Some are in remote locations and receive only sporadic veterinary visits.  There is no communication system between the centers.  Resources for elephant healthcare and handling information are almost non-existent. 

The monthly ECC budget for food is about 300,000 rp per elephant (~ $30 US).  The monthly veterinary supply budget is less than one U.S. dollar per elephant, and even this is often used to purchase food rather than veterinary supplies.  Pawangs (elephant handlers) earn 300,000 rp / month (~ $ 30 US - and the government often pays only half of this salary. 

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Riau Elephant Center

The Riau Elephant Center was established in Riau Province in east central Sumatra in 1988.  It is located 115 km northeast of Pekanbaru (a city of 1,000,000) and about 30 km southeast of Duri, a Caltex oil company community.  A local decree designated 5000 hectares (~12,500 acres) for the Center in 1992.  Villagers burned down the Center in 1993 and it was rebuilt at its present site in 1994.  Squatters have established three villages on ECC land.  The illegal cutting of forest and conversion to oil palm plantations have reduced the elephant preserve to fewer than 500 hectares.  Illegal logging within the primary site (Sebanga-Duri) has escalated, forcing the elephants to be moved to other satellite facilities to find adequate food and water (Minas and Dumai).

During our initial trip (April 2000), (together with  field vet, Dr. Wahdi Azmi of Fauna and Flora International) we conducted a medical evaluation of 41 of 60 elephants at the Riau ECC.  Over a 7-day period we established medical records, administered tetanus vaccinations and de-worming medications, collected blood samples, initiated treatment for current health problems, and set up a small pharmacy. 

Previous reports and a return trip to Sumatra in August with the International Elephant Foundation (IEF) made it clear that continued support was needed.  The problems confronting these elephants could not be solved by sporadic visits.  It was with this realization that our independent program to assist Sumatra’s elephants was launched.  We felt that relatively straightforward solutions to these problems could be achieved given sufficient funding and training.  We wanted to be on-site to provide the needed care, training, and support.

External funding together with guidance from experienced elephant veterinarians and managers is critical for the long-term welfare of the Sumatra’s elephants.  Proper accountability of funding is essential for the support of long-term donors and can be facilitated by an in-country presence.

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Sumatran Elephant Project Goals and Objectives

There are 400 captive elephants on Sumatra.  We would prefer that they were wild, but they are not.  They deserve care.  There are Indonesian veterinarians, but they need training and support.  There is international interest, but it must be directed and donors must be confident that their support provides tangible benefits for the elephants. 

Our goals are to improve the healthcare and management of Sumatra’s captive elephants and to facilitate their participation in conservation efforts.

Objective 1: Continue to improve the healthcare of Riau’s 60+ captive elephants

  • Maintain a preventive healthcare program

  • Continue training the veterinarian, veterinary paramedics, and senior mahouts in basic elephant health care

  • Provide medications and supplies

  • Improve mahout welfare by providing training, uniforms, and books

Objective 2: Develop a Sumatran Elephant Resource Center

This project will establish an externally funded Elephant Resource Center in Sumatra, Indonesia.  The Elephant Resource Center will be a conduit for international material support and information to improve the healthcare and management of Sumatra’s 400+ captive elephants.  

Specific aims are to translate and distribute veterinary information, procure veterinary equipment and supplies, and provide training for elephant healthcare providers.  This project will result in 1) better veterinary care for this unique and endangered elephant sub-species, 2) improved morale and status for Indonesian elephant veterinarians, 3) accountability for foreign donors and 4) captive elephants that are capable ambassadors for the protection of their wild counterparts and their habitat.

The Elephant Resource Center office will be established in Pekanbaru in Riau Province.   Indonesian staff will include a Resource Center Coordinator, a Senior Veterinary Field Officer, and a secretary. The activities of the Resource Center will complement those of PHKA (the Directorate Forest Protection and Nature Conservation), the central government agency that manages Sumatra’s Elephant Conservation Centers (ECCs).  Specific objectives are to: 

  • ·     assist PHKA in the development of veterinary services for all ECCs

  • ·     establish a central pharmacy that will procure and distribute purchased and donated equipment and supplies (the pharmacy will provide supplementary assistance but is not intended to replace the budget or responsibility of PHKA for the overall healthcare needs of ECC elephants).

  • ·     document annual healthcare costs for captive elephants in Riau (and at other centers if possible)

  • ·     establish a mechanism for communication between the Resource Center and all ECC healthcare providers

  • ·     provide guidance to the ECC veterinarians in identifying and resolving clinical problems

  • ·     translate and distribute relevant information including a basic veterinary care manual

  • ·     evaluate veterinary care and needs, advise on management issues that impact elephant health, distribute supplies, and conduct training via periodic visits to each ECC

  • ·     develop, organize, and seek funding for training courses

  • ·     maintain an information database of veterinary-related information

  • ·     channel and provide accountability for international support

Project Schedule

January 2003 – January 2005.  We are committed to raising funds to support this program for 3 years.  Year one is considered a pilot program subject to evaluation and revision.  If the program achieves the outlined goals, our plan is to identify an NGO that will continue its support long term. 

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WWF Asian Elephant Conservation Strategy in Indonesia

The World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) Asian Rhino and Elephant Action Strategy (AREAS) was developed in 1998. It is an Asia-wide program that aims to conserve strategic populations of the Asian elephant and the three Asian rhino species at priority sites throughout their range. 

AREAS encompasses a multiplicity of complex issues that must be addressed if conservation efforts for these key species are to succeed.  Beyond habitat preservation, these issues include land-use planning practices, human-elephant conflict, captive elephants, law enforcement, local social and economics issues, international policies, and wildlife trade.

Sumatra’s Riau Province has been selected as one of WWF’s 13 priority AREAS landscapes for elephant conservation.  Although Riau’s natural forest has dwindled as a result of logging, resettlement, and agricultural conversion, large forest tracts remain.  Riau is thought to contain the largest remaining populations of wild elephants on Sumatra.  With support from the World Wildlife Fund-U.S. and the USFWS, WWF-Indonesia is implementing the AREAS Riau Program.

The in situ objective of AREAS Riau is to secure protection of the approximately 200,000 hectare lowland Tesso Nilo forest as a managed elephant range.  Tesso Nilo is the largest remaining stretch of lowland forest on Sumatra.  In addition to being suitable elephant habitat, this forest is home to tigers, gibbons, and even tapirs.

It is hoped that Tesso Nilo will be designated as a national park and that eventually corridors to nearby Bukit Rimbang Wildlife Sanctuary and Bukit Tigah Puluh National Park (secured with the help of WWF in 1995) could be established.  These combined areas totaling almost 600,000 hectares would also protect the Sumatran tiger, and at least 59 mammal, 192 bird, 660 plant, and 92 fish species.

To date, education initiatives for Tesso Nilo have been aimed at lawmakers and stakeholders within Indonesia.  In 2000, WWF was invited to assist Riau province in the development of a 5-year land use plan which included Tesso Nilo as a “Home for a Thousand Elephants.”  Over 250 people representing government, business, villages, NGO’s and academia attended a stakeholders workshop held in March 2001.  The call for protection of Tesso Nilo was unanimous.  AREAS Riau received letters of support from the parliaments of the three administrative districts that cover the area.  Information about AREAS and AREAS-Riau is available to the international audience on WWF’s website:

The AREAS program is one of the most concerted efforts to protect habitat in Asia as a “safe haven” for elephants and other wildlife.  In April 2001, the AREAS Riau Project asked the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry to declare Tesso Nilo a protected area.  To make sure that this request is granted, AREAS Riau is using every possible means of advocacy and diplomacy to convince all of the decision-making institutions in all layers of government to protect the whole remaining forest of Tesso Nilo.  

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Project Newsletters from Sumatra
Note: Images included - pages may load slowly
April 2001
June 2001
December 2001
November 2002
March 2003


Krishnamurthy, V. 1992.  Recommendations for Improving the Management of Captive Elephants in Way Kambas National Park, Lampung, Sumatra, Indonesia. Gajah, 9, 4–13.

Lair, R.C. 1997. Gone Astray: the Care and Management of the Asian Elephant in Domesticity.  FAO, Forestry Department, Rome & Forestry Department Group, Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific.

Lewis, J.  1998.  A Veterinary Assessment of Sumatran Elephant Training Centers; a Report on the Visit of Dr. John Lewis of International Zoo Veterinary Group, on behalf of Fauna & Flora International, to the Sumatran Elephant Training centers at Lhokseumawe, Sebanga, and Way Kambas, Sumatra 29.04.98 - 13.05.98.

Lilley, R.P.H. & Saleh, C. 1998. Captive Elephants in Crisis, a WWF Report on a Survey of Elephant Training Centres in Sumatra, Indonesia. 9-20 November 1998.  Submitted to WWF Asian Elephant Action Planning Workshop, Vietnam: 1-6 December 1998.

Reilly, J. and P. Sukatmoko.  1998. The Elephant Training Centre at Way Kambas National Park, Sumatra; a Review of the Centres  Operations and Recommendations for the Future.  Dept. of Biological Sciences, Manchester    Metropolitan University, PhD thesis.

Stremme, C.  1998.  Significant Veterinary Problems Caused by the Training Methods Utilized by Elephant Training (ETC) in Sumatra, Indonesia; a Report on behalf of Fauna & Flora International, to the Sumatran Elephant Training Centers at Lhokseumawe, Sebanga, and Way Kambas, Sumatra 29.04.98 - 13.05.98.

Mikota, S.K., Hammatt, H.,  Azmi. W. and Manullang, B. (2000) Medical Evaluation of Captive Elephants, Sebanga-Duri Elephant Conservation Center, Riau Province, Sumatra, Indonesia. & Report of Sumatran Elephant Conservation Workshop, Bogor, Java, April 2000. Audubon Center for Research of Endangered Species, New Orleans, LA, USA.(Mikota, Hammatt), Fauna and Flora International (Azmi), and WWF-Indonesia (Manullang).

Suprayogi, B., Sugardjito, J. & Lilley, R.P.H. 2001.  Ex-situ Mangement of Sumatran Elephants in Indonesia – Problems and Challenges. Prepared for the International Workshop on the Domesticated Asian Elephant, Bangkok and Lampang/Chang Mai, Thailand, 5 – 10 February 2001. Fauna & Flora International – Indonesia Programme.

Hutadjulu, B. and Janis, R. (2001)  Domesticated Elephants in Sumatra, Indonesia. Prepared for the International Workshop on the Domesticated Asian Elephant, Bangkok and Lampang/Chang Mai, Thailand, 5 – 10 February 2001. Directorate of Forest Protection and Nature Conservation, Ministry of Forestry, Indonesia.

Lewis, J. and Yusuf, I. 2001.A Second Veterinary Assessment of Sumatran Elephant Conservation Centres  Notes on the visits by Dr John Lewis, (veterinary advisor to FFI, UK) & Dr Irwandi Yusef, (veterinary advisor to the Sumatran Elephant Conservation Programme, Aceh, Indonesia) to the Bentayan, Lahat & Seblat ECC’s, 13 – 17 March 2001. Fauna & Flora International

International Elephant Foundation. 2001. Support for the Improved Health and Health Care Management of Captive Populations of Sumatran and Asian Elephants. Final report to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service and Fauna and Flora International.  

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