Virus Effort Impetus To Saving Bornean Elephant

KOTA KINABALU: If people can change their ways of living because of a virus then they should also be able adjust to living with elephants.

A top official from WWF-Malaysia issued the challenge to those sharing a habitat with the endemic Borneo pygmy elephants in Sabah, particularly plantation owners.

Its conservation director Dr Henry Chan said while Covid-19 has pretty much forced humans to take on a new norm, the outbreak has also taught people that they are a resilient and adaptable bunch.

“Slowly but surely, we will learn to thrive in it – perhaps, as we alter our way of life to live with this virus, we can also adjust to living in coexistence with the elephants,” he said, in a statement here today.

“I urge plantation owners to consider sharing space with elephants as a long-term solution.

“Consider the elephants not as a problem but as an opportunity – an opportunity to champion the protection of one of our state’s most iconic species.”

Chan said while people have spent most of 2020 cooped up at home to avoid the deadly disease, the elephants’ survival is at stake on a daily basis due to human-animal conflict.

“For centuries, they have roamed this land. They call it home and so do we. As development continuously increased, more land was being cleared for roads, agriculture and settlements. Our shared space is decreasing,” he said.

Towards this end, he said there has been a slight rise in the number of incidences of human-elephant conflicts in the past few months.

Despite tireless efforts from agencies such as the Sabah Wildlife Department, they are limited both in manpower and resources to police the matter.

Recognising that the department’s resources are stretched, he said the plantation owners can play a reactive role by informing the nearest wildlife office should the elephants venture close to their land.

Subsequently, both the plantation owners and the department can then jointly develop an ad hoc plan to mitigate conflict.

“Ultimately, the way forward in tackling human-elephant conflict is recognising that solving the problem is a shared responsibility among all and that everyone has a role to play,” he said.

Chan said in order to alleviate the impact of human-elephant conflict, the solution must be proactive such as long-term solutions that incorporate elephant requirements into land use plans like establishing connectivity areas or corridors in plantations to connect to larger forest patches.

He said the solution is not new as it has been tried and tested in Sabah with great success.

“In 2012, the Tawau based plantation, Sabah Softwoods Berhad (SSB) established a 1,067 ha wildlife corridor to facilitate elephant movement throughout the landscape.

“In 2016, the company again set aside 80 ha of land for connectivity through an area newly developed for oil palm. Prior to establishing these connectivity areas, SSB experienced substantial crop damage due to elephant movement,” he said.

In addition to the wildlife corridor, Chan added that SSB also adopted a strategic land use plan to minimise crop damage by realigning electric fences around vulnerable young palm trees and community settlements to keep these areas safe.

This is while allowing elephants to access their tree plantation areas and mature palm tree areas where damage is minimal.

“These conservation measures, which embrace elephant movement within plantations rather than getting rid of it, bore fruit for SSB.

“Between 2004 and 2011, SSB faced crop damage amounting to a total RM 3.5 million or averaging half a million annually. Since it adopted elephant conservation efforts in 2012, the damage dropped substantially to RM5, 000 in 2018.”

Chan said WWF-Malaysia started collaring elephants in the plantation in 2014 and has since had a better understanding of the movement patterns of five elephants.

This crucial data is used to guide land use plans, and the placement of electric fences as well as to assist the company to plan their operations around elephant movements for safety measures, he added.

At present, he said, there are less than 2,000 Bornean elephants left in Sabah.

“What this means for us is that there is very little room for error when it comes to our actions to protect these megafaunas. One small misstep and we might just see the elephants go extinct in our lifetime.

“Our only lasting solution to the situation is the need for tolerance, we need to share our space with our fellow Sabahan, the Bornean elephants,” Chan said.