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Poaching Crisis in Indonesia’s Leuser Ecosystem

This article is brought to you by the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP). Read our other articles on the National Geographic News Watch blog featuring the work of our iLCP Fellow Photographers all around the world.

Text and photo from iLCP Fellow Paul Hilton.

UPDATE FROM THE FIELD: Paul Hilton and FKL Rangers Expose Wildlife Poaching in Sumatra’s Leuser Ecosystem

Last week I went on patrol with Leuser Conservation Forum Rangers and Aceh forestry staff trekking 60 to 70 kilometers into the Soraya district of the Leuser Ecosystem, Sumatra, Indonesia. The team had been in this area only 3 years before and it was teeming with life.




Right now there’s more signs of death than there are life. In the 5 days I helped the FKL rangers, we destroy 12 snares and we even caught up with poachers – quite literally – carrying ropes and cables to set more snares. The ranger worked hard to convince the poachers there are better alternatives to committing these crimes and they report them to local authorities, but without more funding to really revolutionize law enforcement here, the poaching crisis is only going to get worse. 

An illegal snare awaiting its prey.

The lowest point of the assignment was when we suddenly encountered a large clearing in the middle of the dense forest, a two-day walk from the nearest settlement. This large patch of ground, void of any trees, looked like a man-made clearing. But as our eyes adjusted to the light, the surrounding damaged trees and trampled bush gave it away: the struggle of a very large animal had created this clearing. On the far side we found the remains of an adult Sumatran elephant decomposing in a rusty snare – a complete skeleton, except for its missing tusks.



What hit me hardest was seeing the extent of the elephant’s struggle, so clear from the scene of battered vegetation and splintered trees. How long had this elephant thrashed around trying to break free from the tightening rope? When did its panic give way to exhaustion? How long did it take to die? And were other elephants there to see it?



Snare-traps are carefully and intentionally designed for different species. This elephant, one of only about 500 left in the whole of the Leuser Ecosystem, died a slow agonizing death for the sake of the price tag on its tusks. As elephant habitat shrinks with continued illegal encroachment into the nationally protected Leuser Ecosystem, human settlements, palm oil plantations and roads increasingly block the Sumatran elephants’ forest migration routes. Habitat loss, poaching and conflict with humans combine to see more and more elephants displaced, snared, shot and poisoned as they attempt to travel along the migration corridors their herds have been following for generations. The dry season just started in Aceh and that means the peak season for poaching. As river levels drop the poachers can access the forests all too easily. Endangered species like the majestic Sumatran elephant cannot withstand another killing season this year.

Rangers care for an orphaned baby elephant, his parents victims of the poachers.


The International Elephant Project, Wildlife Asia and the NGO HAkA are working together to support the work of these 60 FKL rangers. They have years of experience and dedication that is second-to-none. Yet these small local NGOs with 60 men on the ground are trying to protect the 2.6 million hectares of the Leuser Ecosystem against incredible pressures. This ecosystem is the smallest possible area remaining which can support viable populations of Sumatra’s iconic mega-fauna. With a modest regular donation to the International Elephant Project you can help keep the FKL ranger teams doing this critical work on the ground. They rely on your support to increase their presence across the Leuser Ecosystem. Join me in helping to fight the poaching crisis now.


  1. jamie murray
    canterbury ct USA
    December 8, 2014, 7:14 pm

    The dysfunction of the planet is truly disturbing. I cant fathom the the blind eye of the government. Especially of United States, we can send a Mars rover to snoop for science. Personally who gives a shit what is happening on Mars! The cost of that could save all endangered species on this very planet that humans were privileged enough to dwell on. How ungrateful the human race. We need to save the gifts we have. There are no rainforests on Mars. If we are not careful there will be no rainforests on Earth either !!! The ways of the world are sad and confusing. Thanks to those who work to protect the Earth.

  2. Giovanna Hounsell
    November 19, 2014, 3:01 pm

    How can the people of the world help?
    I want to do something to help protect this last piece of precious ecosystem.

  3. MJ Pols
    Banda Aceh
    September 25, 2014, 12:53 am

    Leuser Conservation Forum Rangers do a good job by destroying snares but what they do is not sustainable and moreover they will be hated much by the local community who have great difficulty looking for a livelihood in one of the poorest districts of Aceh, Indonesia. This article demonstrates that conservation NGO’s are not interested in providing alternative livelihood for the poachers. If they did, poaching and illegal logging would have disappeared and no need to fund the NGO’s project anymore. Therefor NGO’s keep the situation as it is, like an ongoing cycle.

    Fauna & Flora International (aka FFI) had a forest ranger project in the Ulu Masen region, which borders the Leuser national park. Funded by the Worldbank, Dutch embassy in Jakarta and others. The rangers received only a meager salary by above mentioned NGO. One pants, one set of shoes to be used for a whole year. bad quality equipment too. After the end of the project they were dumped on the road: game over. Some of these rangers are now employed a jungle adventure tourism operator from Banda Aceh.

    Private locally owned businesses in eco tourism never receive funding by any NGO but what these businesses do (providing a sustainable livelihood to locals as for example jungle guides) is far more sustainable in the long run instead of what Mr. Paul Hilton is trying to promote through his article.

    Because they provide jobs and HaKa only provides temporarily jobs for just a handfull of people in the Leuser area. that will result in social jealousy and disharmony within the community which is quite understandable.

  4. Alonzo B. Garcia
    San Antonio , Texas, United States
    July 23, 2014, 7:52 pm

    Thank you all of you that help and protect the innocent souls of this world that cannot voice their opinions and cannot defend themselves.

  5. Alonzo B. Garcia
    San Antonio, Texas ,United States of America
    July 23, 2014, 7:48 pm

    I see the same habitat destruction here in the most powerful nation in the world, all in the name of progress and the economy. We are destroying our world thousands of acres at a time and not setting a good example for our children. we are showing them that it is alright to destroy our world if there can be an economic benefit. We can pollute our environment and not try to use and develop alternative energy sources all in the name of economic progress. It breaks my heart the amount of suffering our species inflicts on beings that we deem as lesser to our own.

  6. Nancy Machado
    July 22, 2014, 12:10 pm

    Thank you so much for all your hard work to safe all the animals that you can. I wish there was more people like you guys, really thank you for giving the animals hope.

  7. Amanda powers
    Melbourne Australia
    July 22, 2014, 6:55 am

    This breaks my heart into a million bits and pieces. We humans are destroying this beautiful earth and killing its creatures through our greed and ignorance. The cruelty inflicted all for money is dispicable and we MUST all stand up to change things BEFORE it’s too late. The time is NOW!!!

  8. Radhika
    Hong Kong
    July 22, 2014, 5:28 am

    Shocking and heartbreaking!! Thank you for bringing this issue to light. Keep up your amazing work.