Last month, an Orang Asli woman died after she was trampled by a wild elephant at Kampung Simoi Baru in Pos Bertau, Lipis, Pahang. It was certainly not the first time an incident like this had occurred in Malaysia.
In fact, as reported by the media, human-elephant conflicts have become more frequent in several states lately resulting in not only loss of lives but also the destruction of property and crops belonging to plantation operators and villagers.
A book published by the Peninsular Malaysia Department of Wildlife and National Parks (Perhilitan) in 2021, titled ‘On The Trail Of Our Elephants In The Central Forest Spine’, revealed that more than 9,600 cases of human-elephant conflict were reported between 2006 and 2020 with the highest number of attacks (1,108 cases) reported in 2009.
Perhilitan implemented various measures to check such conflicts and the success of its initiatives was seen in the downward trend in the number of elephant attacks recorded between 2010 and 2016, with the lowest number (327 cases) recorded in 2016.
However, in the last four years, the conflicts became increasingly worrying when cases went up again. A total of 341 cases were recorded in 2017, 496 cases (2019) and 549 cases (2020).
Meanwhile, man-elephant conflicts occurring over a six-year period from 2015 to 2020 led to an estimated RM30 million in losses, mainly brought about by damage to crops including oil palm. The year 2019 accounted for almost 50 percent of the losses at RM14 million.
Many parties, including environmental experts, are of the view that the protracted human-elephant conflict stems from the shrinking forests due to large-scale deforestation for economic activities that have displaced elephants from their natural habitats and deprived them of their food sources.
IN SEARCH OF THE BEST STRATEGIES
Considering that this issue has been ongoing for years, villagers and plantation operators who are most impacted by the crisis are eagerly awaiting a comprehensive solution in relation to dealing with the human-elephant conflict.
Malaysian Palm Oil Green Conservation Foundation (MPOGCF) general manager Zamakhshari Muhamad told Bernama in an interview that since the establishment of the foundation in April 2021, its priority has been, among others, to resolve the human-elephant conflict and focus on the conservation of wildlife including the orang utan and Malayan tiger.
Recognising the seriousness of the human-elephant conflict, he said the foundation is collaborating with various agencies, including Perhilitan, local university researchers, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the plantation industry, to find the most effective way to deal with the issue.
“When we talk about the elephant issue, a part of it is linked to oil palm plantations. We (MPOGCF) as a foundation representing the palm oil industry will continue to try to find a way to deal with this issue because we know it’s closely related to Malaysians, many of whom are impacted by the conflict.
“MPOGCF’s role is to support conservation efforts related to the palm oil industry, notably (in the areas of) biodiversity and environment, through the implementation of our five main objectives,” he said.
“Man-elephant conflicts occurring over a six-year period from 2015 to 2020 led to an estimated RM30 million in losses, mainly brought about by damage to crops including oil palm. The year 2019 accounted for almost 50 percent of the losses at RM14 million,” — Perhilitan
COEXISTING IN HARMONY
Zamakhshari said several measures have been implemented previously to resolve the man-elephant conflict but they were not 100 percent successful. The measures included installing electric fencing and constructing drains to prevent the jumbo mammals from “invading” plantations.
Nonetheless, the success of an initiative carried out in Sabah promoting the concept of “living together in harmony with the Borneo elephant” proved that there is indeed an effective long-term solution to addressing the conflict.
Implemented by Sabah Softwood Berhad (SSB), a company dealing in timber and oil palm milling, the initiative succeeded in mitigating such conflicts through the creation of a 17-kilometre-long wildlife corridor in 2013 to meet the needs of elephants foraging for food in that area.
Various species of trees, including fruit trees, were planted throughout the corridor which indirectly reduced the incidence of wild elephants wandering into SSB’s oil palm plantations. It also succeeded in mitigating losses incurred by the company since 2004 due to elephant attacks.
Zamakhshari said MPOGCF, in collaboration with SSB, Sabah Wildlife Department and Universiti Putra Malaysia, is currently implementing a Napier grass (also known as elephant grass) cultivation project in the wildlife corridor concerned to encourage the wild elephants there to graze on the corridor instead of straying into the plantation area.
“It acts as a measure to reduce human-elephant conflicts as well as encourage humans and elephants to coexist in harmony,” he added.
He said MPOGCF is all set to promote the living in harmony concept in the peninsula with its first project, carried out in collaboration with TDM Plantation, involving oil palm plantations in Kemaman and Setiu in Terengganu.
“We are also collaborating with Perhilitan Terengganu in this project, which we’ve dubbed Living Together. As part of the project, we will be fixing satellite collars on several elephants to study the trends and routes commonly used by the animals concerned before the (wildlife) corridor is created.
“We will also plant Napier grass in the corridor so that the elephants have food to eat and need not wander into plantations,” he said, adding that the concept of coexisting in harmony will enable the mammals to remain protected as “they too are denizens of this country”.
BORNEO ELEPHANT SANCTUARY
On other efforts taken by MPOGCF to mitigate man-elephant conflicts, Zamakhshari said Borneo elephant conservation efforts are actively underway with the building of the Borneo Elephant Sanctuary, together with the Sabah Wildlife Department.
Similar to the role played by the Kuala Gandah Elephant Sanctuary in Pahang, the Sabah sanctuary will serve as a refuge to treat sick and injured wild elephants which will be released into the jungle after they recover.
“To ensure the best treatments for the elephants, the sanctuary will be equipped with an elephant clinic for which RM3.5 million has been allocated. A site visit to the elephant clinic in Lampang, Thailand, will take place this year to get more information on the design of the elephant clinic that we will be building,” he added.
In its endeavours to attain the objectives of its establishment, MPOGCF is also focusing on forest conservation, especially degraded forests, through its One Million Tree Planting project on a 2,500-hectare area in Sabah.
The 10-year replanting effort is aimed at restoring the orang utan habitat at Lower Kawag in the Ulu-Segama Malua Forest Reserve in Lahad Datu. Working closely with the Sabah Forestry Department, MPOGCF has allocated a total of RM28 million for the project.
So far, 100,000 trees have been planted successfully and the tree-planting efforts will continue based on the schedule that has been set.
“MPOGCF is also working with the Peninsular Malaysia Forestry Department on the Central Forest Spine (CFS) project to link fragmented forests. The project is expected to start in Kelantan,” said Zamakhshari, adding that the foundation will continue to improve its biodiversity and wildlife conservation efforts to clear Malaysia’s image and prove to the world that it has a sustainable palm oil industry.
Besides encouraging research and studies on the conservation of Malaysia’s endangered wildlife species and biodiversity and carrying out reforestation programmes, MPOGCF has three other objectives as well, namely assisting NGOs in funding their wildlife and biodiversity conservation activities and sustainability best practices; encouraging and promoting conservation initiatives and sustainable oil palm planting practices; and enhancing conservation, biodiversity and sustainability efforts to benefit local palm oil producers as well as users of Malaysian palm oil products all over the world.
The demand for Malaysian palm oil is high worldwide but the industry has been facing unfair attacks due to the various baseless allegations levelled against it, among them being accusations that its oil palm plantations are posing a threat to the environment.
The export value of Malaysia’s palm oil and palm oil-based products stood at RM73.25 billion in 2020 and escalated to RM108 billion in 2021.
“It is MPOGCF’s responsibility to rectify the negative perceptions of our palm oil industry which is the main contributor to the nation’s economy and development,” stressed Zamakhshari.