‘Just skin and bones’: Bali elephants left to starve

An elephant park in Bali left more than a dozen elephants to starve, and staff without pay after plummeting ticket sales forced it to close when COVID-19 spread around the world and borders were closed.

Bali Elephant Camp (BEC) is a safari-style park, a half-hour drive north of Ubud, the Indonesian island’s cultural capital, that offered a range of nature-based activities like bike-riding through rice fields, and white-water rafting.

In 2005, BEC joined a wildlife conservation programme run by the Ministry of Forestry that entrusts privately-owned zoos and safari parks in Indonesia with the care of critically endangered Sumatran elephants.

A 2007 study by the World Wildlife Fund found there were as few as 2,400 Sumatran elephants left in the wild, and the number now is thought to have halved as a result of poaching for ivory, human-elephant conflict, and deforestation. Between 1980 and 2005 – the equivalent of only one and a half elephant generations – 67 percent of the potential Sumatran elephant’s habitat was lost. In the wild, the animal was listed as ‘critically endangered’ in 2012.

The elephants for the parks and zoos are sourced from breeding centres established 30 years ago in Sumatra in a programme that was supposed to help stabilise the population. In exchange for giving the animals a home, accredited businesses were permitted to sell elephant-tourism services that were wildly profitable before the pandemic. BEC was charging $230 for a half-hour elephant ride for two people.

The birth of three baby elephants over the past 15 years suggests BEC was not only meeting but exceeding its animal welfare requirements.

“Our friends in conservation say we have some of the healthiest, happiest elephants they’ve ever seen!” the company’s website boasts.

But photographs taken by a wildlife veterinarian at the park in May and shared exclusively with Al Jazeera showed several severely undernourished elephants.

“You cannot imagine a skinny elephant until you see one,” said Femke Den Haas, a veterinarian from the Netherlands who has been working to protect wildlife in Indonesia for 20 years.

“They are big animals and you’re not meant to see their bones. But that’s what they were – just skin and bones.”

Government support

Haas visited the camp as a partner of Konservasi Sumber Daya Alam Bali (BKSDA), the government body that supervises the safari parks and zoos that have adopted Sumatran elephants.

“Many industries in Bali have collapsed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Agus Budi Santosa, director of BKSDA. “But the impact on small companies like Bali Elephant Camp has been especially severe. [When tourism stopped] they were no longer able to cover operational costs, especially the cost of feeding elephants. The government had to assist them by paying for food and electricity.”

In July, the company told the Bali Animal Welfare Association (BAWA) that it was doing its best to take care of the elephants but struggling to meet its monthly $1,400 operating costs and that neither the forestry department nor BKSDA had offered any financial support.

“You can’t as a company say there are no more visitors so I am not taking care of the elephants anymore,” Haas said.

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