BANDA ACEH, Indonesia – Rachmat has a nasty gash on his leg from walking over broken glass. Marni has a forehead laceration from bumping up against things. Their fellow workers are also nursing cuts and scrapes.
Since the Asian elephants began helping clear debris in Indonesia's Aceh province after the Dec. 26 tsunami (search), they have picked up minor on-the-job injuries. Officials and trainers say none of the wounds are serious, but conservationists and animal welfare activists say the endangered elephants shouldn't be working in the ruined city of Banda Aceh and want the practice ended.
"You are not going to get rusty nails in forests," said Ian Redmond, a wildlife biologist and elephant conservationist with the British group Born Free Foundation (search). Though the animals' health depends on the care they receive, "the potential for injuries in a disaster zone is more serious," he said.
The criticism angers Aceh officials and elephant trainers, who say the animals receive excellent care.
"These so-called animal lovers, they come to me and say the elephants look thin, but it then turns out they have never seen an elephant before," said Andi Basrul, who heads Aceh's government-run conservation board overseeing the elephants.
The debate over elephants in the relief work force comes as international attention focuses on a mobilization of money and aid from around the globe to help survivors of the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami. Most of the tsunami's 165,000 victims died in Aceh.
Putting elephants to work is a millenia-old tradition in Asia, where they have been used as pack animals and transportation, and are part of ceremonies and religious processions.
Though they once roamed from the Middle East to China, Asian elephant herds have been decimated in recent decades by poachers, encroaching farmlands and dwindling forests. About 40,000 still live in the wild.
In Indonesia, elephants are usually captured young and trained in jungle camps to fell trees for logging. The government's forestry department uses the animals to patrol against illegal loggers — and occasionally lends them out for parades.
In the immediate aftermath of the quake and tsunami disaster, 18 elephants in Aceh did the work of scarce trucks, bulldozers and other heavy machinery.
Directed by their trainers, or mahouts, they hauled away cars and rubbish to allow crews to collect dead bodies. In Thailand, they were used to reach hilly or muddy areas where vehicles couldn't go.
These days, six elephants in Banda Aceh (search), the capital of Aceh province, load tens of thousands of fallen coconut trees littering the city onto trucks, which cart them away to be cut up for temporary housing. Mahouts occasionally whack the animals on the head with hammers to get them moving.
Several elephants have been injured, but none seriously.
"They are enjoying the work," said Madi, a mahout who, like some Indonesians, goes by one name. "We can tell if they are suffering, and believe me they are not."
The Singapore Zoo has sent 40 tetanus shots to protect the elephants from infection, said zoo spokeswoman Betsy Tan.
But animal rights advocates say the elephants are being dragged from their natural habitat and aren't getting proper care.
"They belong in the jungle, not the city," said Luki Wardhani, a veterinarian for Indonesia's leading conservation group, ProFauna. "They are not getting enough water and food, and are picking up cuts every day from glass, nails and sharp metal."
Nicole Meyer, of the U.S.-based People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said nations should be trying protect the endangered animals.
"Putting them in a work situation is certainly not the way to conserve their numbers," she said.
Redmond, the wildlife biologist, was critical of some of the elephants' work, but said they can be useful for tasks such as clearing downed trees.
"Picking up tree trunks is less likely to result in injuries than handling other debris," he said. "For that sort of work elephants are better than most machinery."
Kept in a parking lot, the elephants are fed coconut palm, bananas, unhusked rice and sugar cane, and bathed regularly. A veterinarian gives the animals twice-daily medical checkups, vaccinates them against tetanus, and treats infections.
After stints in the city, the elephants return to a government-run training camp in the jungle.
Marni, the injured elephant, spends her days wandering through protected forest land near the camp in Saree, a hill town 43 miles east of Banda Aceh.
"Marni was glad to be home, sure," said her trainer, Safrudin. "But the cuts aren't serious. In fact, she came back to the jungle fatter than when she left because everyone was giving her cakes."