That Man-Eating Python Is Only The Tip Of Indonesia's Human-Animal Conflict Problem

More than a decade of uncontrolled expansion in the mining and palm oil industries is pushing critically endangered animals into the path of humans, with disastrous results.

by Adi Renaldi
30 March 2017, 11:09am

Photo by Ranjith Kumar.

The world recoiled in horror last weekend when a video of a man who was swallowed whole by a giant python in Indonesia's West Sulawesi province hit the internet. The victim, a laborer at an oil palm plantation, was working a field that had encroached upon the snake's natural habitat. It put the massive snake in the direct path of local workers, a path that tragically ended in a deadly (and viral) encounter with a giant python. 

It was a shocking video, one that touches on some of our deepest fears. But it's also becoming surprisingly common in Indonesia. The country's mining and palm oil industries have developed at a remarkable pace, contributing to years of economic growth and providing jobs for millions. The production of valuable palm oil—an ingredient in nearly all consumer goods—grew by more than 13 million metric tons since 2008. Today, industry exports bring in some $18.6 million USD in taxable income a year. 

But all this economic growth has come at a cost. The palm oil industry is the leading driver of deforestation in Indonesia. And as new oil palm plantations encroach deeper into what was once lush tropical forests, they bring human into closer contact with wild animals than ever before. There have been recent run-ins with tigers, elephants, orangutans, and now snakes.

In South Sumatra, a man was found dead after he was attacked by a tiger while looking for palm leaves early year. Wild elephant attacks have become so common in Sumatra that non-profits now use teams of tamed elephants to guide their wild cousins back to the safety of the jungle. 

"As their habitats grow smaller, the risk of conflict between humans and animals grow. Constant land expansion will cause their populations to decline," said Yuyun Indradi, a forest campaigner at Greenpeace Indonesia.

While instances like this python attack grab headlines, in most human-animal conflicts, it's the animals who lose. In Riau, a heavily deforested province in Sumatra with more than  2,399,172 hectares of oil palm plantations, saw 68 critically endangered Sumatran elephants die at the hands of humans between 2012 and 2016, according to data compiled by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Most were poisoned after they wandered into oil palm plantations and villages in search of food. 

Today, there are only 330 Sumatran elephants left in Riau province, a drop from the 420 found in the province in 2004, according to Syamsidar, a forest campaigner at WWF. 

"Elephants are communal animals, they move from one forest to another," Syamsidar told VICE Indonesia. "They cross people's land and are probably driven away with violence."

Syamsidar said WWF and the regional governments are currently conducting patrols and monitoring Sumatran elephant's movements in a bid to help the animals avoid villages and plantations.

But the most effective way to prevent conflicts between man and beast is to limit the number permits handed out to plantation companies, said Yuyun. 

"The government released a moratorium on land permits, but it's ineffective due to lack of consistent enforcement," he said. "So far official supervision is very low, let enforcement from law enforcement."

The government issued a moratorium on peatland and forest permits in 2013. But the number of areas used for plantations and mining had already increased to 12 million hectares between 2011 to 2013, according to data released by Wahana Lingkungan Hidup Indonesia (Walhi).

Syamsidar said that the government needs to step-up its enforcement if it wants to stop conflicts between humans and wild animals. 

"Local residents and tourists clear land in the small scale, but corporations can clear hundred of hectares of land because of bad permits,"  Syamsidar said. "Eventually society itself becomes the victim."