CALANG, Indonesia (AP) — An Indonesian court on Monday began a trial against a group of men accused of poaching endangered Sumatran elephants and trading in illegal ivory, in a case that wildlife conservation officials have hailed as a milestone.
The case includes nine men accused of killing wild elephants by setting electrified wire traps on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, and two others accused of buying ivory from the elephant killings.
The charges follow on the discovery by Indonesian authorities of five elephant skeletons in a village of the Aceh Jaya district in January 2020.
The Aceh province’s conservation agency estimated that the group of elephants had been dead for more than two months before being found. A number of body parts, including their ivory tusks, were missing.
There are only some 700 wild Sumatran elephants left on the island, but poachers prey on the endangered animals for their valuable tusks.
State prosecutor, Achmad Buchori, told the Calang District Court that the defendants had intended to sell illegally the elephant tusks on the international market.
“They have killed critically endangered animals viciously and brutally to earn money,” Buchori said, adding that they sold each of the elephant tusks for the amount of 3.5 million rupiah ($250).
Under Indonesia’s Conservation of Natural Resources and Ecosystems, the group of 11 men faced up to five years in prison and a fine of 100 million rupiah ($7,000) if found guilty.
Monday’s trial opened a week after a baby elephant died after getting her trunk stuck in a poacher's trap.
Conservationists say that the coronavirus pandemic has led to increased poaching in Sumatra as villagers turn to hunting for economic reasons.
In July, an elephant was found without its head in East Aceh. Police arrested a suspected poacher along with four people accused of buying ivory from the dead animal. Their trials are ongoing since last month.
“These trials send a strong messages that wildlife crime could not be tolerated and will be prosecuted at the court,” said Agus Arianto who heads Aceh province’s conservation agency.
The number of Sumatran elephants that have died as a result of being snared and poisoning has reached 25 in the past nine years in East Aceh district alone, Arianto said.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature, or IUCN, has raised the status of the Sumatran elephant from endangered to critically endangered in its 2012 Red List, mostly because of a significant drop in the population as indicated by the loss of over 69% of its potential habitat in the last 25 years — the equivalent of one generation.
Indonesian forestry and environment ministry’s data showed the Sumatran elephant population has shrunk from 1,300 in 2014 to 693, down nearly 50% in the past seven years.
Sumatran elephants are a subspecies of the Asian elephant, one of two species of the large mammal in the world.