Ensuring accountability for elephant deaths in Sabah

  • Letters
  • Tuesday, 11 Feb 2020

Photo: Reuters

SABAH had a challenging year last year with constant media attention on wildlife issues and the numerous deaths of pygmy elephants.

In 2019,24 deaths were recorded with five occurring in the space of four months.

These deaths were seldom attributed to natural causes. Illegal hunting, poaching, poisoning and snaring were common causes of these deaths.

Although accidents do occur, most deaths appear to have been deliberate, retaliatory killings after the elephants enter agricultural areas and eat crops and trample the ground. Whatever the motive, the killings are unnecessary.

It is evident that human-elephant conflict (HEC) is a major issue that is now confronting Sabah.

These elephants are displaced as a result of the loss of their habitat, which has been divided into sections, impacting their home ranges and natural movements. One of the main

causes of these divisions is the issuance of licences for monoculture plantations in the midst of the animal’s habitat. In the end, this has resulted in increased conflicts and killings of elephants in Sabah.

According to Global Forest Watch, Sabah lost nearly 900,000ha of forested 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 commerce, there is an increased incidence of HEC today compared with before.

Closed in from all directions and with their food sources destroyed, these pachyderms have no choice but to turn to agricultural areas for food.

The recent series of elephant deaths in Sabah have shocked and outraged many. One of the most brutal killings emerged when a pachyderm’s carcass was found in Sungai Udin, Tawau district, riddled with more than 70 bullets. (“Pygmy elephant killing suspects to be charged”, The Star, Oct 5,2019; online at bit.ly/star_charge).

Therefore it is time for the state government to come up with long-term solutions to prevent further deforestation and ecological destruction in Sabah and introduce a stricter regulatory framework to protect Bornean elephants.

And these regulations must be strictly observed by the agricultural industry, regardless of the type of crops grown.

All parties that are responsible for the deaths of this iconic Bornean species either directly or indirectly by further damaging 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 human agricultural activity, therefore these commercial entities must be held accountable if any of their employees, permanent or contractual, are proven to be involved in causing harm and death to the animals.

It is unfair, and in fact ineffective, for the authorities to only punish ground staff and security employees whose lives may also be directly endangered by HEC, especially if they lack the appropriate training in managing such conflicts.

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.

There must also be a stronger policy framework to guide the relevant government agencies, civil society and local communities to work more closely together to create a more effective system to manage Sabah’s elephant habitat. This is urgently needed to check poaching activities and preserve the state’s wildlife population.

Citizens, in fact, must be encouraged to play a more significant role in protecting Bornean elephants. They must be encouraged to be more vigilant and to readily report any suspicious activities to the Sabah Wildlife Department and Sabah Forestry Department.

SAM looks 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 the death of elephants injured and killed on their land.


President, Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM)

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