THERE is always an inherent risk in wildlife immobilisation but failure to prepare for the worst is as good as signing the death warrant of the animal.
While lab results are not available immediately, preliminary analysis of the events leading up to the collapse of the baby elephant Mat Chepor raised the question of competency of the wildlife rangers and the urgency the Department of Wildlife and National Park (Perhilitan) places on handling displaced animals.
Why did it take five days before the Elephant Unit came for the baby elephant? Within these five days, it is understood that the village had taken on a carnival-like atmosphere. Scores of villagers and curious public were turning up to get a glimpse of the orphaned elephant.
Elephant experts said the presence of humans is a tremendous stress to a young elephant that is already traumatised by the loss of its mother, detached from its herd and chained up.
“This is a herd animal, psychologically it was in deep stress. The public may not know better but Perhilitan should have controlled the situation,” said a source who requested anonymity.
“The elephant was reported to be in a healthy condition when it was first caught. To have its condition deteriorate that quickly points to poor handling.”
As for the use of drugs, he said Mat Chepor did not need to be sedated on the day it was to be relocated. The work elephants of the unit could have been used to accompany the 18-month-old jumbo onto the truck. Work elephants are commonly used in elephant translocation to calm down even the adult animals.
He said the dosage used may have adhered to standard practice but it is meant for a healthy animal with no complications.
“Did anyone notice that the calf was not well and review the actions to be taken first instead of following the laid down rules? It is a big risk to drug an animal that is weak,” he added.
And why was there no veterinarian in the team? It wasn't until 12 hours later that Taiping Zoo director Dr Kevin Lazarus was brought in; by then precious time had been wasted while the poor creature lay on the ground without any professional help.
It is ironic and frustrating that while Perhilitan's elephant experts are widely sought by neighbouring countries, Mat Chepor had to die in the hands of incompetent handlers.
The death of Mat Chepor is not an isolated case. In May, a displaced tapir captured in Sungkai had its legs tied up and died by the time it got to the Sg Dusun breeding centre.
A wildlife biologist familiar with the issue of wildlife management sympathises with Perhilitan’s predicament.
“Perhilitan is pushed by everybody to do the dirty job. More and more animals are displaced due to habitat destruction and these are putting pressure on Perhilitan,” he said.
He said the backwater department had itself been neglected for far too long; it doesn't attract the best brains and is left to its own device to cope with emerging challenges.
The death of Mat Chepor is a lesson for all. Hopefully, there will be a concerted effort by the government to tackle this long-standing issue of displaced animals.
“A holistic plan should start with protecting whatever natural forest cover that is left; followed by a management plan on displaced animals.
“There must be allocation for captive facilities and those handling the animals must be given professional training,” said the biologist.
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