Return to Bona


It had been 2.5 years since I last ventured to Sumatra. I must admit, I did worry that we’d be forgotten. While the story meant a lot to me, I wasn’t sure I’d even be remembered or welcome back to visit. That may sound strange, but behind the scenes it wasn’t always fun and games with a little baby elephant.

Bona’s story, though it spread like wildfire in the media back in Australia raising amazing awareness of the plight of the Sumatran elephant, caused a lot of headaches for the government in Sumatra which was understandable. Behind the scenes we had met with a lot of hurdles along the way…milk formula for Bona being rejected by the camp, threats of deportation for some of our crew, refusal of permits back to the camp, threats to send Bona to a zoo in Bali. While we knew we were only there to help not hinder, when you are dealing with a country with a lot of corruption at a government level, you just never know which way the story is going to turn next. It was great however to land and realise that it wasn’t all bad news. While we might have made a few unintentional enemies to save Bona, we had made an abundance of friends and the story was continuing. I was pleased to see that I was welcomed back with open arms and it was clear that we most certainly hadn’t been forgotten. We took 3 flights, a 15 hour car journey (where I felt possibly as motion sick as I have ever been) and a whole lot of money to return to spend just 2 days in Bona’s village. To me, it was worth every second and cent to see the progress since I was last in Sumatra.


I felt the excitement setting in from the moment we woke up and jumped on the back of the motorcycles to finally be seeing Bona again. We wound through the palm oil plantations, along familiar tracks beside the river to land across from the elephant camp. Seeing the camp brought back so many fond memories, I felt like I was truly home. I’d stopped at the market the night before to fill up with as many treats as we could carry. Watermelons, sugar cane, bananas. All treats a little elephant would love. I wanted to spoil her as much as I could- the same way I feel when I see my 6 year old niece. I was ecstatic to see many old friends waiting by the river for us. Many of the Mahouts we had spent endless days and nights getting to know had come to welcome me, it was very special. For many of us, we couldn’t communicate through spoken words, but over the many hours feeding Bona her milk at all hours of the day or night, we found other ways to form friendships. Playing volleyball, teaching English, or sharing our tastes in music. Those memories I will hold dear to me for the rest of my days. I am not sure anything has come close to that again.

Then there she was. Across the river, this big, rotund little fat thing. Standing close by her special friend Aswita. I felt like a kid at Christmas watching them cross the river together and heading my way. This moment was one I had spent too many days thinking about in the past 2.5 years. She got out of the water with that cheeky little elephant smile on her face and strolled right up to me. I gave her some bananas and was a little lost for words seeing how big she was, and admiring her new little tusks she was sporting. Tuhirman, Aswiata’s Mahout, came over and gave me a hug. He is someone that has been there from the very beginning and who has given Bona a lot of love too. I remembered how much he wanted to become Bona’s Mahout when she first came to camp. He cared a lot about her. I am not sure if it was me she was excited to see or the bananas I was holding, but it didn’t matter. She was there, and she was well, and I was happy. I couldn’t believe I was finally there.


Bona is about to turn 5 years old on October 24th. Something that was likely never to have happened if she hadn’t had access to expensive milk replacement formula after her Mother was killed within a palm oil plantation. This is sadly a common occurrence now with so much deforestation happening in Sumatra. An elephant’s natural range is now impacted heavily by masses of palm oil and rubber plantations and also devastated by coal mining in certain areas. A baby elephant in the wild will spend up to 5 years with her mother suckling and learning everything from her. Bona was lucky when she was rescued alone in that plantation, to afterwards form a special relationship with Aswita, a female elephant that was also rescued and residing at the government camp. While we gave her milk, or “susu” in Indonesian, Aswita was able to give her love. It was great to see that their bond is still very strong. She still stands on the side of the rapids when crossing the river ensuring Bona is on her “safe side”. We used to joke around a lot saying “all you need is love”, but it is partly true. An elephant displays similar emotions to a human. That was one of the things we first noticed when we met a very sick little Bona- she needed reassurance and affection. Just like an 18 month old toddler would need from a mother. Bona needed it too. Thank you Aswita for taking on this job without anyone having to ask you.

Bona no longer requires milk, she’s eating solids and therefore easier to care for by the camp. Milk replacement formula was something, in the quantities a baby elephant would need, that was far too expensive for the camp. These days she eats palm oil branches, forages in the forest and gets extra special treats like watermelon and banana. It seems there has been no shortage of food, she is a very healthy weight and has a fat little tummy that now swings from side to side. A far cry from the little bag of bones she was when we first met her. She only used to be able to stick her beady little eyes over the side of the kitchen, now she towers over it. She is also getting to be very mischievous….testing the waters by charging at people, climbing up on the verandahs (breaking floorboards) and trying to get into the kitchen.

Bona has also commenced training to be a CRU Patrol elephant. Bona, and the 17 other elephants at the camp, have a very special job to do. All human-elephant conflict animals, they were taken out of harms way and sent to live at the elephant camp where they do regular patrols of the protected forest where they live. They are working for the government to look for signs of illegal logging, palm oil encroachment and poachers-  all to protect the last bit of forest left in the area and the animals that live within it. This forest contains a herd of 70 wild elephants, Sumatran tiger, tapir, gibbons and many other endemic wildlife in the area. With only around 1000 Sumatran elephants left in the wild (though highly likely to be even less), it is paramount that they receive as much protection as they can get. In 15 years, without emergency measures for their protection, they are not given much hope for survival.


What astounded me most was how much Bona’s story has meant to Sumatra and the village where she lives. Since telling her story, Bona has fast become the icon of Bengkulu (the city close by). Many people who helped us in the early days are now protectors of Bona too. From the local hotel manager, to the school teacher in the local village, to local journalists and more. All of these people, now our dear friends, are the eyes and ears of Bona.

We visited the local schools again and what I saw had a profound impact on me. We visited class after class to teach elephant conservation. These are children who live within palm oil plantations, and understand little about the importance of the forests and the animals within them. On their side of the river, there is only one type of tree as far as the eye can see. Nothing can survive within it. Our very first visit to these schools all those years ago was vastly different to this trip just gone. I remember being laughed at the first time for coming all that way to save one elephant. But slowly, the children have been taught the importance of the conservation of these iconic animals. It might sound strange, but teaching students that there are no elephants in the wild in Australia, no tigers, no rhino, makes all the difference. These are children who have little access to the outside world, or any resources to come to find out this information. Students couldn’t believe that we don’t have elephants in our country.

Mr Mokko, the local school teacher, is doing all he can to turn this around. He has been using our story, about the work 3 Australians did for an elephant in their village, to educate the students. As often as he can he tells the story of how much media Bona has received about “their icon elephant” and why we did what we did to save her. He tells them that they have a famous elephant living in their village. He is always asking me for resources to help teach his students about endangered wildlife. I take my hat off to Mr Mokko who is trying all that he can to make sure this next generation grow up with the animals in mind. This time, the students knew of Bona, and welcomed us with open arms, asking lots of questions about conservation. I told them how much Rupiah it cost to save Bona, which was an alarming amount after it is converted to local currency. The children couldn’t believe we spent that money on an animal- it could have fed their entire family for a year. I told them how important it was to the Australian public to save just ONE critically endangered animal. They understood then, and we played some games where the kids were calling out, “WE MUST LOVE ELEPHANTS”, and holding up their hands in the shape of a love heart.

Similarly, Mr Mokko has established an Elephant Care Community group for the young people in the village. Once a week they meet in an undercover shelter in a local street to talk about the importance of the elephants. The answer to palm oil isn’t simply to boycott it. I feel that in Australia we are trying to simplify a problem that is far more complicated than stopping the demand we are fuelling. These people, and many more like them, survive off this industry alone. It is what sends their children to school, puts a roof over their head, and pays for their healthcare. There is so much more work needing to be done on education, to protect both livelihood and the forests so that humans and animals can live more harmoniously. It is not as simple as stopping the industry. I think our first educational booklets I made said something along the lines of not buying palm oil. I have quickly realised that going into the village with this message is something that is not helpful. There is another way of going about it for sure.

There is no doubt that Bona’s suffering was not in vain. Her story has managed to showcase the importance of protecting the Sumatran elephant to the local villagers. That to me is something that surprises me most, as it was never our intention when we first set off for Sumatra. We just thought we’d take some food to help a little elephant along. Never in our wildest dreams would we have imagined the impact this story would have. For this reason we will continue to keep telling this story. No matter what happens in the future, Bona has and will be a very important ambassador for her wild cousins. We must do all that we can to ensure elephants are walking amongst us for future generations. Muzza and I are looking forward to continuing to share Bona’s legacy through future projects together with Bona’s village and the people of Sumatra.

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