Indonesia: Yongki, endangered Sumatran Elephant and loyal ‘park ranger’, killed by poachers
By Michael E. Miller, 22nd September 2015
By the time the park rangers reached Yongki, it was too late.
Instead of rising majestically to his full height of 10 feet, the massive Elephant remained on the ground. And when the mahouts, or elephant riders, approached their two-ton friend, they saw Yongki was lying in a pool of his own blood. The animal’s tongue was bright blue, as if poisoned, and there were gory stumps where his three-foot tusks had been.
Yongki, an endangered Sumatran Elephant (Elephas maximus sumatranus), was dead — slaughtered for his precious ivory tusks.
The grim discovery on Friday in Sumatra’s Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park marks the latest round of a raging international debate over poaching.
It comes two months after American dentist Walter Palmer shot and killed Cecil the Lion. And like the Zimbabwean big cat’s demise, Yongki’s death promises to stir widespread anger and criticism.
The hashtag #RIPYongki was already trending on Twitter in Indonesia on Tuesday morning, as were the grisly photos of the Elephant’s corpse.
Park officials told The Washington Post that they were “very sad” over the incident and have launched an investigation.
Yongki’s death is a significant blow to both Indonesia and the world. Sumatran Elephants — one of four Asian Elephant subspecies — are rare; there are less than 2,000 left alive, according to the World Wildlife Fund.
Sumatra, a large island in the west of the Indonesian archipelago, has struggled to protect the animals. Poaching has slashed the island’s Elephant population over the past decade. Last year was particularly bloody, with at least 45 Elephants killed; a 55 percent increase over 2013, according to Vice.
But Yongki wasn’t just an endangered Elephant.
He was also a park ranger.
Yongki was a tame Elephant who had spent much of his roughly 35 years around humans, according to AFP. Along with his mahouts — a term used across south and southeast Asia for elephant riders — the lumbering creature was a member of a conservation response unit, or CRU, that sought to protect the natural habitat.
Every day, Yongki and his human partners would patrol the dense jungles of southern Sumatra. With a mahout on his back, he would trudge along paths too treacherous for any mechanized vehicle, on the lookout for ivory poachers, illegal loggers or farmers encroaching on protected parkland.
Yongki also had another duty: liaising between species.
Sumatran park rangers use tame Elephants like Yongki to drive wild Elephants back into the jungle, avoiding clashes between Elephants and farmers who have been known to take revenge upon the animals.
As one of only a handful of Elephant rangers in Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park, Yongki will be sorely missed.
“All staff [are] … very sad because [of] one Elephant’s death in National Park,” a park official wrote in an e-mail to The Post.
“We are mourning the [loss] of an Elephant who has been helping us in handling conflicts and helping forest rangers patrol the forest, and he was a good Elephant,” Nazaruddin, who is the head of the Indonesia Mahout Forum and goes by one name, told AFP.
He added that the mahout in the park were “very shaken” by the Elephant’s killing.
Yongki was found on Friday at around 7:30 p.m. near a lodge inside the park, according to a press release provided to The Post. He had bled to death from his severed tusks.
The only hint as to how the poachers subdued the animal was his “very blue tongue.”
Poisoning Elephants is increasingly common in Sumatra, where poachers can make a year’s salary with one set of tusks. Many locals also view the animals as pests. Last year, seven Elephants were found dead from suspected poisoning in a single day, the Guardian reported.
Raw ivory can fetch between $2,200 and $2,640 per pound, Vice reported. While some tusks are kept as trophies, others are used in traditional Chinese medicine, according to AFP.
Yongki’s death is a setback for Sumatra. In February, police in the north of the island celebrated a major success, catching eight suspected ivory traffickers including five poachers who admitted to killing four Elephants, according to WWF.
The Elephant’s killing is sure to inflame the international debate over poaching just as it started to die down two months after the controversy over big game trophy hunting and Cecil the Lion.