Yongki, a Sumatran elephant who worked with his handlers to patrol endangered habitats, was discovered dead on Friday, sparking a renewed global backlash against the practice of poaching endangered animals. The #RIPYongki hashtag has been trending on Twitter since the news broke, with condemnation coming in from around the world.
Yongki was special to the Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park in Sumatra because he was a tame elephant who was able to work with humans and elephants. As The Washington Post reported, he was able to drive wild elephants back into the jungle to avoid potential conflicts between elephants and local farmers. He also worked with mahouts, or elephant riders, to patrol difficult terrain for farmers and illegal loggers who may have been encroaching on protected land.
"We are mourning the [loss] of an elephant who has been helping us in handling conflicts and helping forest rangers patrol the forest, and he was a good elephant," Nazaruddin, the head of the Indonesian Mahout Forum, told Agence France-Presse. He added that the mahouts in the park were “very shaken” by the elephant’s killing.
Sumatran elephants have been listed by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) as critically endangered in the wild. Fewer than 3,000 remain in the wild, and the WWF reports that that number is steadily declining, with much of that loss coming from the past 25 years of deforestation. Their primary threat comes from interactions with humans. Those clashes have been increasing as farmers seek more grazing land for cattle, and loggers look for more viable forests.
“All staff [are] … very sad because [of] one elephant’s death in National Park,” a park official wrote in an e-mail to The Washington Post.
The Yongki tragedy comes on the heels of the global uproar over the killing of a Zimbabwean lion named Cecil by American dentist Walter Palmer and this week's World Rhino Day, which was intended to create awareness about species decline.
After the death of Cecil the lion, The Christian Science Monitor reported that global outrage prompted President Obama to create the CECIL Act in his honor, which severely restricts the importation of illegal animals killed as trophies. Protesters in Florida also spray-painted Mr. Palmer’s vacation home with the words “Lion killer.” Cecil was being researched by a group of Oxford scientists as part of a larger study, and had generated both popularity and tourist revenue for his home country during his lifetime.
It is not yet known who killed Yongki, but because he was found with a blue tongue, experts are determining that he may have been poisoned by poachers, according to MSN. The practice of poisoning elephants, either in addition to or instead of shooting them, is common; The Guardian reported in February that seven elephants, all from the same herd, were dispatched in this manner. Many locals consider elephants a nuisance and an interference with their crops.