Can we learn to live with elephants instead of killing them?

  • Animals
  • Sunday, 20 Oct 2019

Asian elephants roaming in the wild along Muda River. StarPic By: ZAINUDIN AHAD/The Star / 16 Mac 2019

In July, they came. Forced out of the jungle by logging and land clearing activities, the elephants trampled into the farms of the Orang Asli villagers in Pos Simpor near Gua Musang, Kelantan, foraging for food.

The villagers in Kampung Jader, Kampung Penad and Kampung Ceranok could only look on helplessly as the animals fed on their crops of tapioca, banana and corn.

But Jaringan Kampung Orang Asli Wilayah Tanah Adat Pos Simpor chairman Nur Mohd Syafiq Dendi Abdullah did not blame the animals as “they are hungry, too”.

“This would not happen if the authorities impose sustainable policies to protect the jungle and wildlife,” he says.

(The dead elephant in the image above was the victim of an accident on the Kota Tinggi-Mersing road in Johor on Oct 4. — Bernama)

Environmentalists have long expressed concerns over the impact of deforestation in Gua Musang, where large tracts of jungle have recently made way for monocrop plantations of durian and rubber, displacing both Orang Asli villagers as well as wildlife.

For many people living and working on farms and plantations along the fringes of jungles around Malaysia, instances of such human-wildlife conflict have become almost a daily occurrence.

At least the villagers in Pos Simpor didn’t take any drastic measures against the elephants, merely following procedure and lodging a report with the Wildlife and National Parks Department (Perhilitan), which subsequently relocated the animals.

One bull pygmy elephant in Tawau, Sabah, wasn’t so lucky.

More elephants are coming into conflict with humans as wildlife habitats are lost to development
The image on Facebook that went viral in September, 2019. The dead bull elephant was found with over 70 bullet holes and tied to a tree in a river in Tawau, Sabah.

Its carcass was found in a river still tied to a tree near a Felda (Federal Land Development Authority) plantation and an autopsy revealed over 70 gunshot wounds on its body, including one bullet that went right through the left temple and penetrated the skull, decimating the brain.

When a video clip of the dead jumbo went viral late last month, it sparked much outrage locally – and international headlines.

Because the elephant’s tusks had been removed, there was speculation that its death had been due to poaching.

When police arrested six suspects later and seized their cache of firearms, they included a Felda staff member and two settlers.

Since then, Felda, the Malaysian Palm Oil Certification Council and the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil have all issued statements condemning the killing while WWF Malaysia conservation director Dr Henry Chan called for a wildlife crime bureau to be set up.

“It is time to set up a wildlife crime bureau so that we can confront organised wildlife crimes in a systematic and consistent manner,” he says, adding that such a unit could be parked under the jurisdiction of the police.

“The successful capture of the suspects proves that we are indeed capable of doing better,” points out Chan.

A Pachyderm Pest?

More elephants are coming into conflict with humans as wildlife habitats are lost to development
Development has been affecting elephants in Malaysia for a long time. On Sept 17, 1894, a bull elephant was killed after reportedly charging a train in Teluk Intan, Perak, supposedly in revenge for the earlier death of a calf. The site in Sungai Kerawai is now a memorial to the elephant, and its skull and tusks have been preserved in the Perak Museum in Taiping, as pictured here. Filepic

But it’s not just shooting, poisoning and poaching that threaten these creatures – many elephants also fall victim to road accidents.

Just days after the police closed the shooting case in Sabah, an adolescent female was found dead about 50m from the 13th mile marker along Jalan Kota Tinggi-Mersing in Johor, victim of a road accident on Oct 4 (pictured in main image above).

It’s likely not the last fatality either, with the coming year-end school and festive holidays which often see a peak of wildlife road deaths.

Social media seems to be replete with images of such killings lately – whether by road accident or shooting – of elephants and other wildlife, or of these animals encroaching into human habitats.

On Sept 7, Water, Land and Natural Resources Minister Dr Xavier Jayakumar announced that the government will be setting up a third elephant sanctuary on a 100ha site in Perak as part of its efforts to conserve the animals.

This is in addition to the Sungai Deka Elephant Sanctuary in Terengganu, the Johor Elephant Sanctuary in Kota Tinggi and the Kuala Gandah National Elephant Conservation Centre in Pahang.

Such a move is laudable – but what does it actually mean for the conservation of wild elephants in Malaysia? Are our shrinking jungles running out of space for elephants and are these majestic beasts being increasingly resented as a nuisance or, worse, a danger to the public?

After all, coming in at around 3m high and weighing some four tonnes, as well as being a wide-ranging species, elephants pose a mammoth dilemma.

Management and Ecology of Malaysian Elephants (MEME) deputy principal investigator Asst Prof Dr Wong Ee Phin says the cases of elephant mortality in the country are “of great concern”.

“I see them as warning signals that we are not able to adjust our development to coexist with wild elephants – every new report of roadkill or intentional killing is a signal that needs our attention,” she says, adding that the Tawau shooting is a “wake-up call”.

Asked if the conservation status of Malaysia’s elephants is critical, Dr Wong says: “It is difficult for me to assess the current state of our elephants, but looking at it habitat-wise, we are concerned.

More elephants are coming into conflict with humans as wildlife habitats are lost to development
A two-year-old elephant found dead beside the Gerik-Jeli Highway in Gerik, Perak, in June, 2017. More and more of the behemoths are being killed in vehicular accidents as they attempt to cross roads cutting across their habitats. — Filepic

“We need to retain our (primary and secondary) forest and promote habitat connectivity.”

Habitat connectivity refers to how well separate patches of habitat are connected; greater habitat connectivity means animals are able to travel safely between these patches, which is vital for a far-ranging species like elephants.

In April, Perhilitan director-general Datuk Abdul Kadir Abu Hashim went on record to say that the elephant population in Peninsular Malaysia has reduced from previous estimates of between 1,223 and 1,677 individuals in 2011 to 1,100 now, while it has been reported that Sabah’s wild areas still have approximately 1,500 Borneo pygmy elephants.

The smallest of elephants in Asia, the Borneo pygmy elephants have been determined by WWF to be a subspecies with some genetic differences from those on the peninsula, but they remain the same species, Elephas maximus. Asian elephants are totally protected in Peninsular Malaysia and Sabah.

Walking With Elephants

Ensuring the survival of Malaysia’s elephants means having to find ways for humans to live with them, and for them to live with us, says Dr Wong.

“We need landscape approaches looking at habitat connectivity and mitigation methods that allow elephants to safely cross from one area to another.

“We need to find ways to encourage agriculture sectors and rural communities to agree to live alongside elephants and that means increasing their ability to withstand some amount of conflict with elephants. And we need to reduce the effect of habitat fragmentation by working with engineers and land-use planners to minimise the impact of roads and other development on elephant movements and wildlife,” she says.

Moreover, on managing this human-elephant conflict, she adds, we should go beyond reducing crop depredation and combating poaching.

“In the long term, we need to be working with the agriculture sector to find ways to increase tolerance, and promoting this coexistence is key to the survival of elephants,” argues Dr Wong.

“I see that as a crucial step towards elephant conservation in Malaysia, as wild elephants often venture out of protected areas,” she says.

While habitat loss and fragmentation of jungles need to be urgently addressed, Dr Wong remains convinced that Malaysia has the potential to turn the situation around.

“Our politicians are aware of the importance of keeping our forest intact at more than 50% and the need for sustainable development.

“Now, it is on the ground, how can key players manage the situations according to local context and work with stakeholders on the implementation,” she says.

Dr Wong, who is also Society for Conservation Biology Malaysia chapter president, is hoping that there will be more support from businesses for our elephants and the planet.

“I am hoping more from the private sector will embark on working together with researchers and non-governmental organisations to find ways to enhance wildlife conservation or tackle climate change,” she says.

“I believe all of us have a role to play. Every single person and every single organisation can make a difference.”

This seems to be the belief of the Sabah Chief Minister as well.

Speaking to reporters soon after the Tawau elephant shooting, Datuk Seri Shafie Apdal issued a stern warning to all plantations and timber concession owners to take steps to protect the wildlife and environment in their areas.

Calling the killing a “selfish act for personal gain”, Shafie said it “was hurting Sabah’s reputation as a responsible producer of timber and palm oil”.

With Malaysia’s timber and palm oil already being criticised for unsustainability by green groups as well as Sabah’s reputation as an ecotourism heaven at stake, protecting the elephants – and other wildlife – just makes good business sense, too.

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