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Sumatran Elephants Join Critically Endangered Species List

  • Brian Padden

A Sumatran elephant is seen in Perawang, Riau province, Indonesia, January 12, 2012.

A Sumatran elephant is seen in Perawang, Riau province, Indonesia, January 12, 2012.

The World Wildlife Fund announced Tuesday that Indonesia's Sumatran elephant is now facing a greater risk of extinction and that its status has been changed from "endangered" to "critically endangered" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The elephant's shrinking population is caused, in large part, to the conversion of its forest habitat to agricultural plantations.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature, which maintains the world’s most comprehensive inventory of biological species, says there are only about 2,400 to 2,800 of Sumatran elephants remaining in the wild. This is about a 50 percent drop in numbers from a count in 1985. The drastic population reduction, combined with a 70 percent loss of its natural forest habitat, prompted the organization to move the Sumatran elephant subspecies to the 'Red List' of threatened species.

The World Wildlife Fund points to Sumatra's rapid deforestation rate as the main cause for the increased threat to the elephants.

Two-thirds of Sumatra's forests have been cleared in the past 25 years to make way for lucrative palm oil plantations. World Wildlife Fund elephant and tiger monitoring coordinator Sunarto says the most suitable habitat for elephants is also the most sought after land for palm oil production.

"Elephant habitat happens to be very strictly competing with the need for oil palm because elephants live mainly in the wet, lowland areas where [they are] exactly considered very good for planting oil palm," he said.

Sunarto says, although Indonesia has designated the Sumatran elephant a protected species, little is being done to protect its habitats.

The World Wildlife Fund has called for an immediate moratorium on habitat conversion.

In 2011, the Indonesian government enacted a two-year moratorium on the development of new forest land, as part of a $1billion-deal with Norway to protect forests and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But Sunarto says, so far, the moratorium has not slowed the rate of deforestation in Sumatra.

Rather than banning development, he says a new financial incentive program being offered by the government may prove a more effective approach to conservation.

"The government has recently allowed companies to have restoration areas instead of logging concessions for some remaining forest area, so those kind of initiatives can be done by companies where they can also still make profit and at the same time also have the recovery of the endangered species," said Sunarto.

The Sumatran elephant joins the Sumatran orangutan, the Javan and Sumatran rhinos and the Sumatran tiger on a growing list of critically endangered species found in Indonesia. Scientists say if the current trend of forest conversion continues, Sumatran elephants could be extinct in the wild in less than 30 years.