Scientists and villagers search for ways to keep jumbos at bay

Conflict arises between humans and elephants when villages, farms and plantations close in on wild habitats. Electric fence is one way to avoid the encounters.

For centuries, elephants have roamed the forests. Yet today, these majestic mammals are battling for survival in their very habitat as villages and plantations take over their land. Having to grapple with a shrunken environment, these wild elephants often end up in village farms in their search for food. 

This leads to human-elephant conflict, a long-standing problem not just in Malaysia, but also India and Sri Lanka. 

To mitigate “encroachment” by jumbos and confrontation with humans, electric fencing was introduced under the 9th Malaysia Plan (2006 to 2010). Some 72.8km of electric fence costing RM3.49mil was installed at three sites: Kampung Bukit Sapi-Kampung Batu Reng in Lenggong, Perak (34km), Felcra Gugusan Peta Temalik-Kemajuan Kampung Sungai Labis in Segamat, Johor (21km) and Ladang Persind-Sungai Temechil in Kampung Sri Lukut in Kluang, Johor (17.8km). 

Fenced out: Electric fencing has been installed at 15 sites in the country to keep elephants and other wild animals away from villages, farms, orchards and smallholders' oil palm plantations. - MEME
Fenced out: Electric fencing has been installed at 15 sites in the country to keep elephants and other wild animals away from villages, farms, orchards and smallholders' oil palm plantations. — MEME

Under the current 10th Malaysia Plan (2011 to 2015), another 189.8km of fencing is being installed in conflict hotspots at a cost of RM8.1mil. They are in:

> Perak: Air Banun in Grik (12km), Sungai Siput in Kuala Kangsar (34km) and Kampung Bersia in Hulu Perak (10km)

> Terengganu: Kampung Sekayu in Hulu Terengganu (29.5km), Kampung Pelong in Setiu (35km) and Kampung Payung, also in Setiu (18km) 

> Pahang: Kampung Som in Jerantut (14km) and Kampung Sementeh in Temerloh (7.3km)

> Kampung Batu Melintang in Jeli, Kelantan (12km) and  Kampung Mawai in Kota Tinggi, Johor (18km) 

The Wildlife and National Parks Department (Perhilitan) estimates there to be between 1,220 and 1,680 wild elephants in our jungles. It is collaborating with the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus to study the impact of the electric fencing on local communities. 

“The outcome of this study will enable us to determine whether electric fencing has reduced human-elephant conflict and give us an indication of the community’s level of tolerance towards elephants,” says Salman Saaban, director of the biodiversity conservation division.

He says a study carried out in Lenggong, Perak in 2011 showed that electric fencing has enabled farmers to continue their agriculture activities without fear of elephants destroying their crops. It is challenging to persuade villagers to be more tolerant to damage and losses caused by wild elephants. It is learnt that since the installation of the electric fence in 2006 until 2011, conflict cases has dropped by 36%. 

Salman says the electric fence is monitored for its condition and effectiveness. It contains negligible dosage of current that sends out non-fatal shockwaves. The fence poles are painted white to enable recognition of the structure by the elephants over time.

“Various factors can disrupt the system’s electricity current or cause power leaks. For example, no undergrowth should touch the cable and no trees should fall on the fence. Regular inspection is important, as is gaining the local community’s co-operation to ensure that the electric fence is in working order.”

Elephant routes

To some extent, electric fencing can help confine elephants within their forest ranges but this might not be fully achieved since they can cross sites which are not fenced up. 

To track the elephants’ movements, GPS collars have been fitted on 34 individuals under a research project by the University of Nottingham. Dr Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz, an associate professor at the school of geography, says the GPS collars can provide insights into the response of elephants to translocation and the impact of roads on their movements in the Belum-Temenggor forest in Perak.

Oil palms damaged by elephants in Kampung Lukut in Kota Tinggi, Johor. - Filepic
Oil palms damaged by elephants in Kampung Lukut in Kota Tinggi, Johor. — Filepic

Under the Management and Ecology of Malaysian Elephants (MEME) project that is assessing the effectiveness of existing elephant management and conservation practices, Ahimsa is working with Perhilitan to study the perception of farmers on the effectiveness of electric fences. Perhilitan has built 15 electric fences throughout Peninsular Malaysia. 

Under this study, researcher Vanitha Ponnusamy has interviewed farmers in 12 areas with electric fencing. At three sites where construction is ongoing, she is assessing the human-elephant conflict situation pre- and post-electric fence. 

“Preliminary results suggest that farmers welcome the use of electric fences. Most think that the fence alone will facilitate co-existence with elephants, which means the animals need not be translocated to nearby forests. By early next year, we will be able to provide a detailed assessment of the perceived effectiveness of these fences,” says Ahimsa, who is principal investigator for the MEME project. Another researcher is looking at the loss of elephant range in the past 40 years.

Despite the installation of electric fencing, Ahimsa says we are far from mitigating the problem of human-elephant conflict. For the future, he hopes to see a conflict mitigation strategy based on land-use planning where areas to be developed and conserved are pre-determined. There must also be financial mechanisms to help farmers who suffer damages, as well as education and awareness to perpetuate tolerance.

“Translocation should only be used as a last resort,” he says. 

Translocation is carried out by the Elephant Translocation Unit in Kuala Gandah, Pahang, which captures elephants in “conflict” zones and releases them in forests elsewhere. Some 780 elephants have been translocated since 1974. Ahimsa says translocation is marred by high failure rates and costs, and requires careful monitoring.

“We hope to share with Perhilitan our data to influence policies of the National Elephant Conservation Action Plan. It will take a few years before we can see the effects on the ground but I think that MEME will make a crucial impact on the management of human-elephant conflict and the conservation of elephants in Peninsular Malaysia.”  

An umbrella group called MyGajah has been formed to implement actions included in the action plan. It involves Perhilitan, conservation groups (Wildlife Conservation Society, World Wildlife Fund and Malaysian Nature Society) and MEME. 

Vigil by villagers

In Johor, community guarding is being used as a human-elephant conflict mitigating measure, based on its success in some South-East Asian countries. It was introduced in eight villages surrounding Endau-Rompin National Park in 2009. 

In community guarding, villagers use simple tools (like spotlights, lanterns, fires and noise-making gadgets such as drums) and “trip-wire” alarms to deter elephants from entering farms and villages, explains Dr Martin Tyson, technical advisor for the Asian elephant project of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). 

“By acting in a group and not guarding their fields alone, the whole community safely and effectively keeps elephants away,” he says in an e-mail interview.

“WCS Indonesia programme first developed a community human-elephant conflict mitigation scheme in 2002 around the Way Kambas National Park in Sumatra. 

“Although the rice farmers were initially sceptical, it was eventually showed that 74% of attempted elephant raids could be avoided. That success is likely because these farmers have a tradition of collectively managing irrigated rice fields, so they rapidly learned co-ordinated guarding. Once the effectiveness of the strategy was demonstrated, local government officials provided financial assistance.” 

In places like Laos where rice fields are scattered over a wide area, Tyson says communal guarding is not as effective. In Thailand, pineapple farmers along the boundaries of Kaeng Krachan National Park brought abandoned land back into production after keeping elephants away. 

“With Johor, we have had limited success in some villages, but the most effective farmers are keeping elephants away on 70% of the occasions,” says Tyson.

He says community guarding not only helps to reduce crop losses, but avoid retaliatory action such as killing or injuring of elephants.  

On the other hand, he says villages with mixed agriculture are less successful in reducing conflict, probably because of longer forest boundaries, larger crop areas and insufficient people willing to guard the farms at night. 

On electric fencing, Tyson says a well-designed, carefully-sited and properly maintained structure is essential to successfully manage conflict. 

“Unfortunately, in Malaysia and elsewhere, many fences do not meet those criteria. For good fencing to work, there should be knowledge on elephant range in the landscape and landscape-wide planning of fencing, or else, elephants may be trapped in areas with little food, or their seasonal movements may be impeded. 

“This issue is most pressing in Johor, where habitat fragmentation and fenced plantations may be producing such effects, leading to escalated human-elephant conflict.”  

Compounding the problem is the conversion of forests into industrial plantation crops. 

“It’s done at the expense of the nation’s biodiversity, and villagers suffer when displaced elephants enter their village,” says Tyson. 

Related stories:

Villagers keep a watchful eye over jumbos

Fortified barrier keeps elephants away

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