In 2016, calamity struck Indonesia’s Riau province. A herd of around 30 wild elephants descended on the village of Muara Bungkal for two months, devouring about 50 hectares of land, and saddling the village with more than $65,000 in lost crops. Then, having trampled the fields and eaten their fill, they took off to raze the next village. 

The elephants treated Muara Bungkal “like a holiday camp,” Subrianto, the village chief, told Rest of World.

Clashes between humans and elephants in Riau have become more common since the 1990s, said Subrianto, who goes by a single name, like many Indonesians. Local NGO staff, working to preserve what remains of Riau’s endangered Sumatran elephant herds, were left to balance preservation with supporting the villagers’ livelihoods.

“But we were operating blind,” Zulhusni Syukri, program director of Rimba Satwa Foundation (RSF), a small group of animal conservationists based in the province, told Rest of World. “We had no idea where the elephants were.”

“Before, we would have to run from village to village if we saw an elephant, to warn people.”

Then, in 2020, the organization began tracking down the elephants, tagging them, and fitting giant, 30-pound GPS collars around their necks. When a collared elephant and its herd went near any farms or houses, RSF would alert villagers, who would make a racket by setting off firecrackers and bellowing to drive the animals away. By 2022, the organization had five of the GPS collars tracking five herds of wild elephants, more than half the population roving the wilds of Sumatra. 

Not a single violent clash has been recorded over the past year, village leaders and RSF members told Rest of World. “Before, we would have to run from village to village if we saw an elephant, to warn people,” said Ibnu Hajar, the village chief of Lubuk Umbut. “Elephants still head our way, but we can handle it now that they have the collars. We can be ready. It’s not like it was before.” 

RSF is part of a movement. In animal-human conflicts in recent years, some NGOs have turned to monitoring technology — not to spy on either wild animals or humans, but to broker peace. Various companies now do a brisk trade in elephant GPS collars, and a Nepali software engineer has designed an app-based alert system to de-escalate encounters between elephants and people. One method even imitates the sound of buzzing bees, playing on the elephants’ threat perception to drive them away. 

While conservationists have experimented with surveillance drones to monitor herd movements and deter poachers, collars are more versatile, usable on big cats and bears — and also less expensive. 

In Riau, before the collar system, the community had been resigned to rising tensions with the elephants. Through the 1990s, Indonesia’s palm oil and paper industries grew, and elephant territory gave way to bristling plantations. Between 2001 and 2020, 9.8 million hectares of tropical primary forest in the country was lost to actions like logging by companies and farmers’ backburning, according to University of Maryland data provided to Rest of World by Greenpeace. 

“The elephants can be terrifying, but it is understandable when they come into our villages because there is no food left for them,” Subrianto told Rest of World. “What are they supposed to eat?”

Syukri, of RSF, studied electronics in college before pivoting to elephant conservation. “I just knew that whenever I saw an elephant, it made me happy,” he told Rest of World. Syukri heard that the Indonesian government had experimented with using GPS collars in Riau in 2012, but that the program had petered out. RSF thought the government was on to something. 

In 2020, the organization — which counts Malaysian petroleum giant Pertamina and cosmetics brand Lush among its donors — ordered six GPS collars from South African company Africa Wildlife Tracking, at the hefty cost of $4,000 each. With the help of a vet who had been involved in the failed 2012 program, RSF began to fit the collars on the wild elephants of Riau.

“We fit collars on the largest elephant in the herd, because that is the most dominant one and the other elephants follow it,” said Syukri. That way, he explained, they can judge from one data point if a herd is approaching a village.

Fitting the collars isn’t an easy task. Tracking a wild elephant, finding it, and then getting close enough to shoot a sedative dart into its ears — some of the thinnest skin on an elephant’s body — can take up to a week. 

Once the elephant is knocked out, the collar is hauled onto its back and fixed around its neck using a metal buckle. A pouch, fitted with a GPS tracker, hangs on the collar. The tracker connects to a satellite, which sends the RSF team GPS coordinates of the elephant’s location.

From the township of Duri, 22 RSF employees track the elephants using their mobile phones, punching the coordinates into Google Maps. If they see an animal’s coordinates coming close to a village, they call the village chief to intervene. Two RSF staff monitor the GPS trackers at all times, working in shifts

Syukri said that RSF intervenes almost every day, sending messages and warnings to village chiefs in the area through a WhatsApp group called “Early Warning.” 

“Information about Rara [one of the tracked elephants]. The elephant is about to enter the Giam Siak Kecil,” reads a recent message sent at 1:58 a.m., along with a Google Maps link of the GPS coordinates.

The system is not foolproof, and if the elephants enter a particularly dense area of jungle with a thick canopy, the signal can be lost. But, since 2022, no elephants have yet managed to enter a village, as the GPS collars always transmit a signal in those areas.

Syukri and his team are conscious that although the system works, it relies on significant labor from the RSF volunteers, and guaranteed goodwill from the villagers. In the early days of the program, some farmers thought that GPS collars controlled the elephants and could be used to steer them left or right, and that the RSF were using them to deliberately drive the elephants to the villages.

“There was a lot of suspicion in the local community about our involvement. But once we explained our aims to them, they were receptive to the program,” Syukri said. 

“The collars are not a final solution that will end this problem, because the farmers still need to scare them away from their land manually by setting off firecrackers and shouting.” 

Syukri said that other countries trying to manage their own elephant populations are using hardware such as sensors that go off when an elephant passes by, triggering a siren that scares the animal without the need for human intervention. RSF also uses geothermal drones to track the movements of the elephants at night, and hopes to fit collars on the remaining four Sumatran elephant herds in Riau, said Syukri. The only way to ensure the project is successful in the long term, it seems, is to implement near-complete surveillance coverage and automation.

“With the technology we have, we can only warn people ahead of time. We can’t actually move the elephants away from the farmers’ land,” Syukri said. “We are making progress, but we still need more technology to help us.”