Thriving on Elephant Ground

Bornean Pygmy elephant (Elephas maximus borneensis) calf. Danum Valley Conservation Area, Sabah, North Borneo, Malaysia.The Bornean pygmy elephants are found only in the northeast tip of Borneo, in the Malaysian state of Sabah. In June 2005 a team of the Sabah Wildlife Department in Malaysia and WWF¿s Borneo office were collaring five Bornean Pygmy elephants. It was the first time anyone has ever studied Borneo¿s elephants. It will be the largest study ever done to track Asian elephants via satellite. It was not until 2003 that the Bornean Pygmy elephant had been scientifically recognized as a sub-species in 2003.

By WWF Malaysia

This year, the world grieved as they learned about the tragic death of a pregnant Asian elephant in Kerala, India who ate a firecracker-filled pineapple. The jumbo died in unimaginable pain as the firecracker exploded in her mouth — a poignant photograph of the dark realities of human-elephant conflict and the devastating impacts it has on one of the world’s most magnificent creatures.

A shared responsibility for all

The tragedy in Kerala hits very close to home for us here in Sabah. Over the past year, we too have had our fair share of Bornean elephant deaths due to human-elephant conflict. While not all these deaths are captured on camera, they all are equally devastating to a species that is survived by less than 1,500 individuals in the wild. If we continue to rest on our laurels, then we are moving one step closer to the possibility of seeing the complete loss of the Bornean elephants in our lifetime.

A subspecies of the Asian elephant, the Bornean elephant inhabits the jungles of Sabah with a small population in northern Kalimantan. They are the smallest subspecies of elephants in the world and are known to be gentler than the Asian and African elephants.

In Sabah, the Bornean elephants are threatened by the loss of habitat and increasing incidences of human-elephant conflict that has led to retaliatory killings.

The elephants have also become targets of poachers as their tusks are deemed as valuable on the market. Even when they are not the intended targets by poachers, they also risk falling victim to snares that are set up to capture smaller animals.

As the largest land mammal, the survival of the Bornean elephant is vital to maintaining the rich biodiversity here in Sabah. They aid in seed dispersal through the forest as well as creating pathways for smaller animals to use.

The Bornean elephant is also one of Sabah’s most iconic wildlife. Each year, tourists flock to Sabah to catch a glimpse of these gentle giants in their natural habitat, resulting in millions of ringgit in revenue for the State.

Recognising the dire need to protect the Bornean elephants, a state wide 10-year Bornean Elephant Action Plan (2020-2029) was formulated by the State government through the Elephant Task Force.

The pygmy elephant calves playing with water at mThe Borneo Elephant Sanctuary (BES) Sepilok, Sandakan. Photo: Bernama

Amongst others, the action plan details strategies that focuses on strengthening the protection of elephants from killings, enhancing habitat connectivity, ensuring best practices in managing elephants as well as research, monitoring and predicting elephant population trends. This policy will provide a clear direction to the State in its efforts to protect and conserve these gentle giants that are endemic to the island of Borneo.

But the task of protecting elephants cannot be upon the government’s shoulders alone. As it is, a substantial amount the Sabah Wildlife Department’s resources and time is channelled to mitigate human-elephant conflict. However, the limited amount of resources available have meant that the Department’s rangers are stretched and cannot always attend to all reports and complaints.

“Plantation companies and civil society all have a role to play when it comes to protecting elephants. Big plantations can implement pre-emptive long-term mitigation plans by incorporating elephant requirements into land use plans such as establishing wider riparian buffers and the placement of integrated electric-fences at the landscape level.

Pygmy elephant range in Borneo. The solid lines on the map show country borders while the dotted line indicates the boundary between the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak. Black dots indicate the areas where DNA samples were collected for a 2003 study.

“Smallholders and local communities can inform the nearest Sabah Wildlife Department office should the elephants potentially endanger their life or crops and property. However, if SWD is unable to attend immediately to the request, the smallholders and local communities, with proper training from SWD, can work together to form crop protection teams to try and protect their crops.

Those assisting in this have to bear in mind that elephants are wild animals, and they should stay alert and maintain a safe distance,” explained the Sabah Wildlife Department’s Director, Augustine Tuuga.

Similarly, plantation owners can also play a part in reducing elephant poaching incidences as some of these cases happened in forest boundaries adjacent to plantations.

A pygmy elephant was shot dead in Kampung Karamuak, Tongod in Kinabatangan after it was claimed to have destroyed villagers’ crops.

“Plantation owners and forest concession holders can play a proactive role by reporting of any suspicious activity in their area such as trespassers, unknown vehicles and gunshot sounds to the Sabah Forestry Department or the Sabah Wildlife Department.

In addition, we strictly condemn the rampant snaring activities especially in forest boundaries adjacent to plantations,” stressed Sabah Forestry Department’s Chief Conservator of Forests, Datuk Mashor Mohd. Jaini.

Ultimately, the protection and conservation of the Bornean elephants is a shared responsibility by all — government, business owners and civil society. It is only in collective action that we can ensure that the elephants survive and thrive in Sabah.

In this lifetime, we have already seen the loss of the Sumatran rhinos. Let us not allow our Bornean elephants to face a similar fate by doing nothing.

Plantation companies and villagers living in areas with high incidences of human-elephant conflict can protect themselves and the elephants through several ways:
12 Effective Ways to Protect Elephants
  1. Don’t erect electric fencing at riparian reserves in a way that hampers their movement from one forest patch to another.
  2. Electric fencing should be placed strategically at a landscape level and regularly maintained. Communicate with neighboring plantation to work out a holistic plan with assistance of the Sabah Wildlife Department.
  3. Plantation owners and forest concession holders should send their employees for training as Honorary Wildlife Wardens (HWW) by the Sabah Wildlife Department. As HWWs, they can conduct more regular patrolling activities to ensure the safety of their plantations and combat poaching.
  4. Store chemicals in proper housing structures and dispose of chemical wastes and garbage responsibly.
  5. Chemicals used on crops should be in accordance with the law and in correct proportions.
  6. Cover any known mud wallows or abandoned pits to prevent elephants form accidentally falling in.
  7. Ensure that workers comply with the law that prohibits the setting up of snares in plantations and adjacent forest reserve boundaries.
  8. Keep records of any sightings of elephants. This can be used later to identify the elephants’ preferred movement route.
  9. Ensure that trenches are built with advice from SWD.
  10. Buy FSC and RSPO or MSPO certified products.
  11. If you encounter elephants while driving, do not rev the engine or honk the horn. Wait patiently for them to cross the road.
  12. Drive slowly when you approach elephant crossing signboards which can be seen along some roads passing through forests and plantations.
7 Steps to Protect Yourself during an Elephant Encounter
  1. Be extra vigilant during the evenings until early morning at areas close to elephant habitat because these are their peak periods of activity.
  2. Maintain a safe distance of at least 30m between yourself and elephants at all times.
  3. If you live in an area close to elephant habitat, do avoid planting fruit crops such as bananas, durians, sweet potatoes in your housing area to discourage their presence there. Proper maintenance of bushes in these areas is also advised.
  4. Don’t feed the elephants. They will come to associate people with food which will later encourage them to raid kitchens and crops.
  5. Don’t panic when encountering an elephant. Move slowly and quietly away.
  6. Ensure that your dogs are properly controlled or restrained in the event of an elephant encounter. Barking dogs will further antagonise elephants.
  7. If you are a plantation owner at areas known for human-elephant conflict, do approach SWD for training and awareness on elephants for your workers.