SUKAU: For the past two months a group of nine Bornean Elephants have been boxed into a totally isolated patch of forest located very close to the village of Sukau, some 120km from Sandakan, causing undue worry and sleepless nights to the villagers there.
“Though we have been living with elephants all our lives and respect them, the current situation is quite alarming as the elephants are trapped in this small patch of forest and have no way to go,” said Azrie, a villager from Kampung Sukau.
“During the day, the elephants hide in this forest. At night, they venture out of this forest patch and they enter the village area in search of food. Elephants are destroying our properties and crops. There is also a very high risk of these elephants colliding with vehicles at night when they cross the Sukau highway to come to our village area. Even our children are afraid to go to school early morning or late afternoon because the elephants also come there. We really need help here,” added Azrie.
Nurzhafarina Othman, a PhD student who has been studying elephant ecology and movement in Kinabatangan for the past five years, explained that this problem is due to the destruction of elephant habitat and more bottlenecks in the elephant movement pathways due to erection of electric fences and drains by oil palm plantations and villagers to protect their crops.
“The number of elephants in Lower Kinabatangan has been stable over the past ten years or so. However, the size of habitat available to the elephants (forest and grassland) has declined regularly during this period. Indeed, although Kinabatangan is a destination famous all over the world for eco-tourism, forest conversion for new oil palm plantations goes unabated,” said Nurzhafarina.
Forest conversion in lower Kinabatangan had in the past been recognized as the major issue facing wildlife in the area and pledges to freeze any new development in the area were made taken during the Sabah Wildlife Colloquium a few years ago and are part of management documents such as the Elephant and the Orangutan State Action Plan. However, recent analysis shows that more land is being converted every year in Kinabatangan.
The Sabah Wildlife Department acknowledges the fact that the most urgent and immediate solution would be to capture and to translocate this group to the nearby Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary.
“Translocation is technically possible and Sabah Wildlife Department’s Wildlife Rescue Unit which is funded by the Malaysian Palm Oil Council has been actively doing this throughout Sabah for the past few years. However we need to realize that elephant translocation is only a fast fix and not a long-term solution. Translocation is a very complicated endeavor, costing a lot of money and creates a lot of stress to the animals,” said Datuk Dr Laurentius Ambu, director of the Sabah Wildlife Department.
“We would probably be doing more translocation activities within the Lower Kinabatangan landscape before we can solve this ever increasing issue. Just this exercise alone to translocate nine elephants could very easily cost between RM100,000 to RM200,000,” said Dr Ambu.
“We see more of these human–elephant conflict now erupting not only here in the Kinabatangan area but throughout all the elephant habitats in Sabah. The reasons why we have conflicts are because more elephant habitat is still being converted to agriculture. As long as the natural habitat of the elephants is destroyed, we will continue to create more conflicts. The department will also be calling all plantations around Sukau to develop a Spatial Master Plan that will respect an elephant corridor. However, unless everyone collaborates genuinely on this issue, we can expect more elephant conflicts in the future,” he added.
The Wildlife Rescue Unit is currently translocating the group of nine elephants from this tiny patch of forest to secure the safety of the villagers in Sukau. The elephants will be released in the forest of the Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary.