BANDA ACEH, Indonesia (AP) -- Rachmat has a nasty gash on his leg from cleanup duty. Marni, an old-timer, has a laceration on her forehead. Their fellow workers are also nursing cuts and scrapes.
Since the Asian elephants began helping clear debris in Indonesia's Aceh province after the December 26 tsunami, 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 city -- especially one in ruins -- 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. Though the animals' health depends on the care they receive, "the potential for injuries in a disaster zone is more serious," he said.
The debate over elephants in the relief work force comes as international attention focuses on a massive mobilization of money and aid from around the globe to help survivors of the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami.
Putting elephants to work is a millenia-old tradition in Asia, where they have been used as pack animals, transportation, 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, 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.
Rachmat, a 23-year-old, is recovering from a 12-centimeter (five-inch) gash in one leg from walking over broken glass in the wreckage. Marni, 48, cut her forehead bumping up against objects during the cleanup.
"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, with ProFauna. "They are not getting enough water and food, and are picking up cuts every day from glass, nails and sharp metal."
U.S.-based People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals' Nicole Meyer 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.
However, Redmond, the wildlife biologist, thinks elephants can be useful in 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."
Any criticism angers Aceh officials.
"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. "There is nothing to worry about."
Elephant trainers say the animals are well looked after.
Kept in a parking lot, the elephants are fed coconut palm, bananas, unhusked rice and sugar cane, and given baths regularly. A veterinarian gives the animals twice-daily medical checkups, vaccinates them against tetanus, and treats infections with antibiotics and other drugs.
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 70 kilometers (43 miles) east of Banda Aceh.
"Marni was glad to be home, sure," said mahout Safrudin, as he played with Marni's trunk. "But the cuts aren't serious. In fact, she came back to the jungle fatter that when she left because everyone was giving her cakes."