The plight of Sabah’s gentle beasts

KOTA KINABALU: Ina felt Mama’s trunk gently caressing her head, trying to wake her up from her nap. She was lying down nicely under Mama’s large frame, which sheltered the Bornean elephant calf from the unforgiving sun. It had been rather scorching lately, with nary a raindrop for at least a month now.

“Ina, wake up. We have to move. The humans are arriving soon. I can hear their vehicles.”

Ina got up on all fours slowly, still groggy from her midday siesta, while Mama looked around and grumbled loudly to others. It was time for them to leave. She trudged along as her mother slowly led their family away from the edge of the palm oil plantation. Mama has eased into her new role as the herd’s matriarch quite effortlessly, even though it came on the heels of a family tragedy. Grandma, who was the previous leader of the herd, had died of poisoning by humans, along with some of Ina’s cousins.

 

Bornean elephants keep Sabah’s forests healthy through seed dispersal.© WWF-Malaysia/John Japil

Bornean elephants keep Sabah’s forests healthy through seed dispersal.© WWF-Malaysia/John Japil

 

Even though it happened a few months ago, Ina could still remember how Grandma suddenly swayed unsteadily before her legs gave way. Mama and her sisters rushed to Grandma and tried to help her to get back on her feet, but no matter how hard they pushed, Grandma just couldn’t move. Her breathing got shallower with each second, until she closed her eyes and became completely still.

To say that these majestic mammals of Sabah were heartbroken when a beloved family member passed away is an understatement. Every female elephant has a close relationship to members of her herd, which was why Ina’s aunts refused to leave Grandma’s lifeless body until Mama, despite her grief, promptly took over as their leader and insisted that they kept moving.

The next day, two of Ina’s cousins passed away in a similar fashion, suddenly collapsing and gasping with a bewildered look on their faces before life fluttered away from their heavy frames. Mama decided there and then that the herd would have to walk further away so they could be safer.

Suddenly, there were sounds of gunshot vibrating in the air. In the midst of the confusion, Ina wondered why the humans would want to hurt her family more and more!

 

Wildlife Officer Mohd Soffian from Sabah Wildlife Department briefing the audience on the current human-elephant conflict situation in Sabah.© WWF-Malaysia/Max Donysius

Wildlife Officer Mohd Soffian from Sabah Wildlife Department briefing the audience on the current human-elephant conflict situation in Sabah.© WWF-Malaysia/Max Donysius

 

The story above gives us a glimpse of the threats faced by Sabah’s elephants. One of the dangers that they face is losing their homes when forests are cleared and turned into other land uses such as oil palm plantations. During the 1990s and 2000s, forest loss had accelerated in Sabah, shrinking the elephant range.

Based on a study done by WWF-Malaysia in late 2000s, it was estimated that there may be less than 1,500 Bornean elephants left in Sabah. Over the years, their forest habitat has grown smaller and their survival is threatened due to increasing conflict with humans who were intruding into the traditional range of elephants. In 2012 alone, there were 99 cases of human-elephant conflict reported in Sabah. Sadly, most cases went unreported, and not a single suspect has been prosecuted for retaliatory killings over crop-damage in recent years.

“The lack of forest connectivity between fragmented forests is just one of the reasons why there’s an increase in human-elephant conflict,” said Ms. Sharon Koh, a senior programme officer of WWF-Malaysia. “It’s a complex situation and we need active participation from all stakeholders to reduce the conflict,” she added.

As part of its continuous efforts to address human-elephant conflict, WWF-Malaysia had co-organised a workshop with Sabah Wildlife Department in March this year for oil palm companies in Kalabakan to discuss conflict management options. At the workshop, the participants showed locations in their plantations that have been fenced or trenched, thus blocking Bornean elephants’ movement paths. They also shared the locations of crop damage by the elephants, an essential information that will help to develop management options for human-elephant conflict.

 

The workshop was attended by 32 representatives from various oil palm plantations in Kalabakan.© WWF-Malaysia/Max Donysius

The workshop was attended by 32 representatives from various oil palm plantations in Kalabakan.© WWF-Malaysia/Max Donysius

 

“We don’t recommend the translocation of Bornean elephants as it is an expensive measure that also creates a lot of stress for the herds. Satellite collaring of elephants has also suggested that the translocated elephants often returned to their original habitat. Unhealthy translocated elephants may also introduce diseases to their new habitat,” said Dr Cheryl Cheah, a senior programme officer who coordinates the field research on Bornean elephants for WWF-Malaysia.

It is being increasingly realised that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for human-elephant conflict. Conservation-friendly land use planning, protection of critical areas from forest conversion, establishing safe movement corridors, well-planned electric fencing and compensation for crop damages to marginal farmers are some of the options suitable to reduce human-elephant conflicts. With the implementation of these options, it is hoped that Bornean elephants like Ina and her family will be able to continue surviving in their beloved home in Sabah.

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