In 2019, 24 deaths were recorded with five occurring in the space of four months. These deaths are seldom attributed to natural causes. Illegal hunting, poaching, poisoning and snaring are the common causes.
Although accidents do happen, most deaths appear to have been due to deliberate and retaliatory action after the elephants entered agricultural areas, damaging the crops and trampling the ground.
It is evident that human-elephant conflict (HEC) is a major issue in Sabah now. The elephants are displaced as a result of the loss of their habitat. Land development has fragmented their home ranges, restricting their natural movement.
One of the main factors is monoculture plantations being opened in the elephants’ habitat. This has resulted in increased conflicts and killing of elephants in Sabah.
According to Global Forest Watch, Sabah lost nearly 900,000 hectares of land between 2001 and 2013 or about 15% of its tree cover. As more and more natural habitats are being cleared to make way for roads, settlements and plantations, there is an increased incidence of HEC occurring.
Closed in from all directions and with their food sources destroyed, these pachyderms have no choice but to turn to oil palm trees for food.
The recent series of elephant deaths in Sabah on or near oil palm plantations have shocked and outraged many. One of the most brutal killings was carried out by two plantation guards and a worker tasked to keep wildlife away from the plantation company’s grounds.
The pachyderm’s carcass in Sungai Udin, Tawau, was riddled with more than 70 bullets. A plantation guard was arrested for this killing in October last year, according to a newspaper report.
It’s time for the state government to come up with long-term solutions to prevent further deforestation and ecological destruction in Sabah and also introduce a stricter regulatory framework to protect the Bornean elephants. The framework must be strictly observed by all players in the plantation industry regardless of the crops they grow.
All parties responsible for the deaths of this iconic Bornean species and even those who further damage their habitat must be held fully accountable. No party should be permitted to claim ignorance as an excuse any longer.
The elephants have been in Sabah way longer than any of the monoculture plantations. Therefore, plantation corporations themselves must be held accountable if any of their employees, permanent or contractual, are proven to be involved in causing harm or death to the animal.
It is unfair and actually ineffective for the law to only punish the ground and security employees whose lives may also be directly endangered by HEC, especially if they lack the appropriate training in managing such conflicts.
Equally important, a limit must also be set to the conversion of forests into plantations. There must be a stronger policy framework to guide the relevant government agencies, civil society and local communities to work more closely together in order to create a more effective system of managing the ecosystems of Sabah’s elephant habitats. Such a collaboration is urgently needed to check on poaching activities and preserve the state’s wildlife populations.
Citizens must be encouraged to play a more significant role in protecting the Bornean elephant. They must be more vigilant and readily report any suspicious activities to the Sabah Wildlife Department and Sabah Forestry Department.
Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM) reiterates its call to the Sabah state government to amend the Sabah Conservation Enactment 1997 to include a provision holding private landowners accountable for the deaths of elephants on their land.
In the meantime, we look forward to the implementation of the 10-year Sabah Elephant Management Action Plan (2020-2030), which lays out clauses that would hold plantation workers and owners accountable for elephants injured and killed on their land.
Sahabat Alam Malaysia
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