MEME project finds ways for Malaysia to coexist with Asian elephants

  • Animals
  • Wednesday, 20 Jun 2018

Wong (left) and Lim, Management and Ecology of Malaysian Elephants members. — SAMUEL ONG/The Star

Elephants are a common sight in Nor Era Kelawak’s village, and they are respected creatures in the community.

But when the elephants raid the 20-year-old Temiar’s village looking for food at her family’s and neighbours’ fruits and vegetable plots, conflict arises as people’s livelihood are affected.

“Elephants appear every two or three months and stay in the forest behind my village for several weeks, coming out and raiding our crops every night,” says Era who is from Kampung Ralak, Hulu Perak where villagers’ main source of income is from tapping rubber.

“When they come, we try to scare them off by shouting at them and waving torchlights but that does not work.

“Some nights, we even have to run from our homes and take our boats to the middle of the river. A few weeks ago, they destroyed my neighbour’s house,” she adds.

“We respect elephants, we call them ‘Datuk’ and ‘Orang Besar’. We would not hunt or kill them unless they gave us no choice and we had to protect ourselves.

“But we do not know what to do to keep the elephants out, and we hope the government will find some way to solve the problem,” says Era.

Four decades ago, wild elephants roamed almost every state in Peninsular Malaysia.

Asian elephants
Elephants have lost 70% of their range in human-dominated landscapes over the past 35 years in Peninsular Malaysia.

Today, these Asian elephants are found mostly in six states – Kedah, Perak, Kelantan, Terengganu, Pahang and Johor. Over in Borneo, Sabah and a small part of Kalimantan also serve as home to the species, but not Sarawak.

Recent studies done by the Management and Ecology of Malaysian Elephants (MEME) show that elephants have lost 70% of their range in human-dominated landscapes over the past 35 years in Peninsular Malaysia, which is a big concern for conservationists.

This loss stems from various pressures, including the encroachment of development into their habitat.

MEME is a research project by the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus (UNMC), in collaboration with the Department of Wildlife and Nature Parks (Perhilitan) of Peninsular Malaysia. MEME’s aim is to move towards a science-based conservation of elephants in Peninsular Malaysia by producing scientific research that can support management decisions by the conservation agencies and build local capacity in conservation.

The Asian elephant is listed as endangered on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List, and is threatened mainly by habitat loss and fragmentation, which leads to escalating human-elephant conflicts. Poaching for ivory is increasingly becoming a threat to Asian elephant populations.

Asian elephants
Wong (left) and MEME's indigenous field assistants tracked GPS-collared elephants in the wild to collect fresh dung samples as part of their study on elephants' stress response.

In 2010, a new Wildlife Conservation Act (Act 716) was established in Malaysia, whereby the conservation status of elephants was elevated from “Protected” to “Totally Protected” species.

Elephants play an important ecological role in the forest.

Because of their size, they are able to swallow fruits whole and defecate the seeds out as they move through the forests.

Therefore, elephants were found to be the main dispersers of large-fruited trees like pauh kijang (Irvingia malayana), affecting tree species composition and forest structure.

“Elephants are also known as mega gardeners or ecosystem engineers,” says UNMC’s Faculty of Sciences’ Asst Prof Dr Wong Ee Phin, who is a MEME member. She adds that as elephants move through the land, they create pathways for smaller animals, and also open up salt licks for other animals.

“Currently in Malaysia, whenever there is conflict, such as when an elephant enters a farm and ravages the oil palm or rubber trees, often, the strategy is to move the elephants away and release them into protected areas with large remaining forests like Belum-Temenggor and Taman Negara,” says Wong, 38, a Yayasan Sime Darby (YSD) scholar who obtained her PhD from UNMC in 2017.

Asian elephants
Wong's research focuses on glucocorticoid, or stress hormone, levels in elephants and how they respond towards management strategies like translocation.. Photo: The Star/Samuel Ong

YSD has been supporting the MEME project since it began in 2012.

Wong adds that during the British rule, elephants were seen as agricultural pests and whenever conflict arose, the mammals were shot and put down.

After Independence, Perhilitan decided to look at other ways to solve such conflicts, and one strategy was to translocate the elephants.

“But once you have an effective tool, we tend to keep using it. And the public also wants it to be done, as they are not willing to live with elephants.

“But MEME wants to collect scientific data that will help the Government assess their strategy to see whether they are doing the right thing, whether translocation is successful and what is the state of elephants in the wild now,” explains Wong.

Her research focuses on glucocorticoid, or stress hormone, levels in elephants and how they respond towards management strategies like translocation.

“My findings showed that translocated elephants have a different stress response compared to elephants at the release sites (not involved in translocation). If there is excessive amounts of glucocorticoid for prolonged periods, then it will affect their physiology and brain functions,” she cautions.

Wong explains that translocation is effective and necessary in certain situations, like areas with pocketed sections which means surrounding grounds are already developed.

“But what’s happening now is more and more land is being opened up for plantations and we cannot continue to use this strategy for these areas, especially if we want to conserve certain areas as elephant management range, or elephant habitats, which may have one or few villages within them. So, we need to think of alternatives, like electric fencing, to safeguard the villagers’ houses as well as crops,” she says.

Asian elephants
MEME members having a discussion with Sime Darby staff on the use of electric fences to help keep elephants from venturing into oil palm plantations.

These fences give out very low electric shocks, says Wong, but some elephants are smart and would push down the posts - which hold up the wires – drop big logs, or push other smaller elephants onto the fences to break them down.

“So, the fences work in some areas, but not in all. They are also only needed in areas where crops are still young,” says Wong.

To reduce economic losses caused by elephants, farmers may resort to illegal ways to kill or hurt them, like setting snares.

“We try to help the farmers deal with the losses by encouraging them to put aside a budget for mitigating measures like putting up electric fences, maintaining them and also to deal with crop damage,” she says.

Finding the balance

Lim Teck Wyn, adjunct lecturer in Biodiversity at UNMC and a MEME member, says with increasing population, elephants are being pushed deeper into the interiors.

However, elephants need to find food, and hence venture out to eat the crops grown mostly by people in rural areas.

“Actually, it’s a problem that’s been going on for hundreds of years but in the last 50 years, with the expansion of big plantations, the problem got a lot worse,” says Lim, 43.

“It’s probably the number one problem in elephant conservation in Malaysia today; dealing with how people and elephants can live together in the rural areas,” says Lim.

One area where MEME’s work is focused on is the Belum-Temenggor Forest Complex, dissected by the Gerik-Jeli or east-west Highway, which has been identified as a weak barrier to elephant movement.

Asian elephants
Elephants are often spotted around the Gerik-Jeli highway areas where they feed on the grassy patches found there.

“The highway has a negative effect on all elephants, including local elephants. Elephants like to hang around the highway for the grassy patches found there.

“But if traffic continues to increase, or the highway is widened, it will prevent the elephants from crossing the highway and their population in Belum-Temenggor will actually be separated. So instead of being one population, they will be isolated,” Lim stresses.

Last year, two elephants were killed after they were knocked down by vehicles on the Gerik-Jeli Highway, which has one viaduct to facilitate animal crossings.

“MEME proposes that we reduce traffic by encouraging road users to use alternative routes, and recommends that we do not expand the highway. Where possible, let the animals cross, but make it safe for drivers as well. All they need to do is slow down and pay attention,” says Lim.

Asian elephants
Lim says proper land use planning is key to the conservation of Asian elephants in Peninsular Malaysia. Photo: The Star/Samuel Ong

Building viaducts is another solution being explored. Studies done by Rimba – a non-profit research group focused on conducting conservation science – have shown that so far, viaducts are more effective for certain types of animals like smaller herbivores.

However, viaducts are costly to build.

“The cheaper and more effective method is put in speed control measures but motorists do not like this,” says Lim.

He adds that proper land use planning is key, rather than having viaducts.

For example, Belum-Temenggor is zoned for tourism, with the natural environment bringing revenue to the country, while keeping agriculture and development at a minimum.

Lim also feels that elephant sanctuaries are actually not the answer and do a lot of harm to the conservation of wild elephants in the broader landscape.

“Areas such as Belum-Temenggor are thousands of hectares wide but these so-called sanctuaries are little more than captivity,” he points out.

A better option is to not fence up such areas, but to create a natural habitat that will attract elephants to the area by maintaining grasslands.

“In future, it’s possible to conserve elephants in the wild if we keep people in the Klang Valley and other cities, and control the number of people in places like Belum-Temenggor, which are conservation areas,” says Lim.

The other challenge he highlighted is that current federal and state laws and policies seem to be in conflict with each other.

“On one hand, the forestry department is trying to keep people out, but on the other hand, we have agencies like the Orang Asli Development Department encouraging them to cut down forests and start rubber plantations.

“So, this is a really big problem because you have some orang asli villages inside the forest reserves and we have the federal government agencies actually giving them free rubber seedlings. Of course, we understand that it is to help the orang asli with their livelihood but it causes a lot of problems with elephants.”

As a whole, Malaysia, especially Peninsular Malaysia, is one of the few places in the world where it’s possible to achieve a balance, reveals Lim.

There are about 1,000 wild elephants in Peninsular Malaysia despite it being a fairly developed country.

“Eventually, we hope to create a landscape where humans and elephants can co-exist, and reduce the need to translocate them. But it’s a complex issue, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution,” concludes Wong.

Read all about Bornean banteng conservation efforts here.

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