Bunta was brave and rebellious. The five-year-old loved to show who’s the boss among the inhabitants of the Conservation Response Unit – a sanctuary for tamed wildlife in eastern Aceh.
For a male Sumatran elephant he was considered small. Nonetheless, when the locals asked for help to get rid of the elephants that frequently roamed in their vegetable fields, it was Bunta who was sent to the rescue.
He was a rock star, said one keeper. But the rock star was found dead this June. Poachers are thought to have butchered him after using a lure of mango tainted with poison. His right tusk was savagely slashed off using a machete. So severe was the process that the tusk was broken leaving a bloody 20-centimetre stump above Bunta’s mouth.
It is a dreadful time for wildlife in Southeast Asia. In the latest records of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), 227 animals are included on the critically endangered list.
Among these are several species of pangolin (10,000 individuals poached each year), the Siamese crocodile (100-300 left in Vietnam and Cambodia, only 30 in Indonesia) and the Sumatran rhino (recently declared extinct in the wild in Malaysia while less than 100 are left in Indonesia).
Also included are the Sumatran tiger (with only 300-600 in the wild) and of course Bunta’s clan of Sumatran elephants, who number just 1,000-1,720 individuals, practically half the population recorded a decade ago.
Once known to be dominated by pristine forests, Sumatra and Borneo are two of the last frontiers of the world’s tropical rain forests. The islands have now been changed into landscapes of unending oil palm plantations, illegal logging, mining activities and human settlements.
As their natural habitat dwindles, elephants, tigers and rhinos often stray into nearby villages, crop fields or plantations and thus risk triggering conflicts with locals. In many instances, the wildlife is killed, as people fear for their safety and livestock.
The media has kept a close watch – breaking stories and even conducting wildlife investigations. But when conflict arises between animals and humans, the journalist-wildlife relationship grows complicated.
What usually happens, as a conservationist specialising in large mammals in Sumatra describes, is the media blames the animal, by portraying it as a nefarious menace causing havoc and death.
Headlines such as “Tiger mauls villager” or “Deranged elephants destroy paddy field” are easy to digest and invite clicks, albeit stigmatising wildlife as culprits instead of victims robbed of their inherited natural homes.
The problem of habitat loss has been made worse by poaching. Sumatran elephant tusks are prized for their colour, density and size, while Sumatran tigers are hunted for everything from their skinto their claws and whiskers, which fetch high prices on the black market.
Giving the animals bad press can thus give license to poachers to hunt for more wildlife. But that is not all. The real harm of such media portrayals is the risk it poses to conservation itself.
When animals are perceived as savage, not only do ordinary folk feel less guilt about eliminating them every time a conflict arises, but the act of killing comes to be seen as necessary – as letting them go free would be seen as placing human life at risk. As if to make this point more pronounced, several Aceh news outlets ran headlines over the course of several days only months before Bunta was killed that literally read “Elephants rampage through villager’s crops”.
Over the decades, the media has played a major part in efforts to protect the natural environment in Southeast Asia. Nonetheless, more balance and clarity in wildlife reporting is necessary to build public support for conservation campaigns. Journalists, for better or worse, wield the power to change public perception.
Shark specialists know just how damaging bad perceptions can be.
A campaign to protect sharks worldwide was not started until the late 1990s, after the animal’s population had decreased rapidly because of the growing demand for shark fin – mostly to cater to the burgeoning Asian taste.
Much earlier, Steven Spielberg scored one of his biggest hits with the blockbuster movie “Jaws” in 1975. The classic horror film about a giant killer shark lurking at sea, Jaws carried a strong antishark message: the monstrous fish is a predator of humans and therefore deserves to be eliminated.
According to one estimate, 10 million sharks are killed every year to satisfy both local and global demands. The idea of shark savagery is immensely misguided: the predators probably kill 20 people a year while humans consume 72 million of them. Still, it is the shark that is thought of as the killer. If only Steven Spielberg knew.