At the end of February, S. Gurning, 53, looked wearisome. The oil palm farmer from Dusun Pungut 5, Balai Pungut village, Pinggir district, Duri, Bengkalis regency, Riau (around 120 kilometers from Pekanbaru) could not hide his frustration. Just a day earlier, dozens of elephants ruined around 50 of his palm trees.
“Your elephants destroyed my plantation. The palm trees are supposed to bear fruit next year. This has happened three times, despite my plantation being part of a protected forest,” said Gurning, who hails from Kisaran, North Sumatera.
Zulhusni Syukri, 33, Duri-Riau Himpunan Penggiat Alam (Hipam) head, who was sitting next to Gurning, patiently listened to the curses coming from the Batak man. Not for a second did Zulhusni argue or interrupt.
When it was his turn to speak, Zulhusni expressed empathy by saying that he understood Gurning’s feelings. Zulhusni went on to explain, however, that the elephants that ruined the trees were actually the ones that needed sympathy.The group of elephants, Zulhusni said, no longer had a place to live in the Balai Raja Wildlife Preservation Forest in Duri, Riau, as only around 200 hectares of it remained from an initial area of 18,000 hectares after being encroached and transformed into an oil palm plantation. Investors built trenches or installed electric fences so that elephants could not get in. As a result, the elephants’ track has now shifted to other areas, including Gurning’s land.”Just make sure you don’t go poisoning the elephants too. Otherwise the problem will become more complicated and you will suffer because of it too,” Zulhusni told Gurning.When they left the plantation, Zulhusni said that Gurning had grown more understanding and was willing to accept the presence of Zulhusni and his friends at Hipam. “Last year, when his plantation was ruined by elephants, Gurning held one of our members hostage in his plantation. He asked us to take responsibility for the damage in his plantation. He said that we let the elephants loose on purpose. It was weird to hear him say that we own the elephants in Duri,” he said.According to Zulhusni, the frustration of farmers like Gurning can be understood. They that have lost income because of the behavior of the elephants. Hipam targets people such as Gurning to keep them calm so they do not attempt to kill the elephants out of rage. There are many angry people like Gurning out there.Taking care of elephants
Father of two Zulhusni takes care of the elephants on a daily basis. Every day, he and five other Hipam members take turns following elephants from village to village. From one oil palm plantation to another. This is because the Balai Raja Wildlife Preservation Forest is now an oil palm preservation forest.”If the elephants start entering a village, we go along together with the residents to guard them. We ward the elephants off the people’s farm, while also asking them not to hurt or, worse, kill the elephants. Now there are lots of people that have started to understand, but there are many that still hate the elephants and consider them pests that must be exterminated,” Zulhusni said.Doe’s Zulhusni’s family have a problem with his job? “My daughter Zizi, 6, when she sees me come home late, always asks, ‘How were the elephants today?’ Zizi considers the elephants a part of our family. My wife is also a nature lover and is now the treasurer of Hipam. So, the whole family understands one another,” said the tall, slim man.Zulhusni’s first contact with a Duri elephant was inadvertent. In 2009, Zulhusni, who was born in Payakumbuh, West Sumatera, 33 years ago, moved to Duri. At the time, an earthquake had just occurred in his hometown of Padang. He then opened a car audio installation business in the city dubbed “the Oil City”.The graduate of Payakumbuh Electro-Mechanical Vocational High School (SMK) has loved nature since he was in junior high school at the Pesantren Kota Padang Panjang. There is not a mountain in West Sumatera that he has not climbed.Though now living in Riau, which does not have mountains, Zulhusni’s love for nature is still manifested in Duri. Together with his new friends, Zulhusni formed Hipam six years ago. The initial activities of the group were climbing mountains in neighboring provinces and once in a while camping in Duri villages.”Four years ago, while we were camping, we came across a small elephant whose leg was broken. It was limping as it followed a big herd. It was so sad to see that. I filmed the elephant. My wife cried when she saw the video. We realized elephants in Duri were suffering. From that moment, we vowed to spare some of our energy, money and time to save the elephants,” Zulhusni said.Members’ contributions
Hipam has not received donations to fund its activities, fully relying on its members’ modest contributions. Zulhusni’s motorbike once broke down in the middle of an oil palm forest when following a herd of elephants. He had to leave his motorbike there for an entire month because he did not have enough money to retrieve it. Apri, another member, sustained a fractured foot as a result of falling off a tree while watching over elephants.”We do not have capital in the form of money. Our capital is our enthusiasm. We once worked with the Riau World Wildlife Fund (WWF) for the planting of plants for elephants’ consumption on 5-hectares of land in the Balai Raja Wildlife Preservation Forest area. Recently, 3 hectares of our plants were uprooted by people who felt they owned the land. However, 2 hectares are still left,” Zulhusni said.Zulhusni did not say how long he would to continue to chase elephants and convince people not hurt the protected animals. But as long as elephants do not go extinct, Zulhusni and his group promise to keep working.”I have sent a letter to President Joko Widodo, as well as the Environment and Forestry Ministry to take notice of the Duri elephants. However, I have yet to receive a response. Without the government intervention, I think it won’t be long before the Duri elephants become extinct,” Zulhusni said.