Big mammals in Malaysia don't get much love

  • Living
  • Tuesday, 29 Sep 2020

A 2017 photo of elephants raiding a village farm in Sukau, Sabah. As elephants lose their habitats, they are coming into conflict with humans and gaining a bad redputation. — JAPAR USOF

We love the cute, shy tapir but we have less love for big elephants that stomp through villages and scarily large-toothed and clawed tigers.

Scientifically, this is called a taxonomic bias: People have more tolerance for the not-so-aggressive tapirs and less for potentially more dangerous elephants, and even less for tigers, a study has found.

The “Factors affecting urban and rural tolerance towards conflict- prone endangered megafauna in Peninsular Malaysia” study was aimed at understanding people’s attitudes towards large mammals – or megafauna – and conservation in Malaysia, says its lead author, Ange Tan Seok Ling.

That people tolerate the tapir better than tigers and elephants is not an unexpected finding, she says, pointing out that the last two animals tend to be portrayed negatively in the news, usually in stories about people or livestock killed by tigers or property damaged by elephants.

More awareness among rural folk leads to situations like this instead of the death of an animal that wanders into human habitation areas. This villager found the two-month-old elephant on an oil palm plantation in Sungai Siput, Perak. — Filepic/The StarMore awareness among rural folk leads to situations like this instead of the death of an animal that wanders into human habitation areas. This villager found the two-month-old elephant on an oil palm plantation in Sungai Siput, Perak. — Filepic/The StarIt is important to portray megafauna from a neutral or positive perspective in mainstream media, as this could help people to develop a positive attitude towards the conservation of these large mammals, she says.

The paper was published recently in the Global Ecology And Conservation journal and is a part of the Management and Ecology of Malaysian Elephants (MEME) research project conducted by the Wildlife and National Parks Department and the University of Nottingham Malaysia (UNM). The project also involves a collaboration between the School of Psychology and the School of Environmental and Geographical Sciences at UNM.

For the study, the researchers conducted 733 interviews in Kuala Lumpur as well as in Taiping and Gerik in Perak. Respondents’ locations were chosen for varying degrees of urbanisation, namely capital city, small town, and rural area, as well as the presence of zoos in KL and Taiping. The idea was to test the effects of urbanisation, conservation awareness, local context (shopping malls versus zoos) and conflict severity on people’s attitudes towards endangered megafauna.

“Overall, people showed relatively good knowledge of local wildlife but not of wildlife conservation issues, ” says Tan.

“Most of them thought these issues are predominantly the government’s responsibility and should be handled by the authorities.”

The study also found that urbanisation and awareness had consistently positive effects on people’s attitudes towards conservation; on the other hand, the local context – ie, zoos versus shopping malls – only had a very minor effect.

“Our results suggest that there is a need for targeted awareness campaigns in urban and rural settings.

“For example, in urban areas, the campaigns should be about enhancing people’s sense of ownership and responsibility towards wildlife conservation.

“In rural areas, efforts should focus on reducing the cost of human-animal conflicts on people while promoting tolerance and a willingness to coexist with conflict-prone megafauna, ” says Tan.

The study also found that, overall, tolerance for megafauna in rural areas was relatively low, with over half of rural respondents not wanting megafauna species “in their area”; less than 20% were willing to accept these species within 10km of their homes.

However, respondents from urbanised areas and those with high conservation awareness were more likely to support maintaining current population numbers of megafauna species or even increasing them.

Overall, very few people, whether urban or rural, wanted these species to completely die out.

MEME principal investigator and assistant professor at UNM Dr Wong Ee Phin says Malaysians living in rural areas need more support in learning to live with these megafauna species.

“We need the wider community, especially people living in urban areas, to support farmers who are taking positive actions to co-exist with conflict-prone wildlife.

“Policymakers can help nudge the agriculture sector to adopt sustainable and wildlife-friendly agriculture practices. In the long run, this will help this sector to manage conflict with wildlife responsibly, ” says Asst Prof Wong.

One of the more interesting findings in the study is that Malaysians feel that plantations and smallholders can play a role in the conservation of elephants and tigers.

Indeed, as Asst Prof Wong says, for quite some time now plantations like Sime Darby Plantation and smalholder association Felda have been supporting research into the conservation of wildlife like elephants and sun bears.

“Perhaps because of this Malaysians are beginning to see the agriculture sector as having a major role to play in wildlife conservation.”

The study also found that although awareness about general wildlife identification and conservation issues was generally high, the lack of awareness of some specific issues is particularly concerning.

For example, only a minority, or 28.5%, of respondents knew that rhino horn is NOT an effective therapy against cancer, and one out of five respondents – or 19.9% – did not know it is illegal to serve pangolin meat in restaurants.

“Definitely more can be done to raise conservation awareness with targeted awareness campaigns promoting, for example, coexistence with wildlife and of illegal wildlife consumption, ” says Tan.

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