By Patrick Lee
The villagers of Kampung Durian Bador in Kuala Berang, Terengganu watched as the huge elephant that had been raiding their orchards for over a year lay sedated in a jungle swamp just 20m away.
Now chained to a tree, the wild bull was awake as he lay in chest-deep mud.
Carefully, men from the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (Perhilitan) approached him, leading three tame elephants linked with chains to bring him out.
As the villagers moved closer, one of the officers warned them to stay back. Even sedated, a wild elephant could easily kill.
Mohd Suhaimi Sulaiman, 35, of the National Elephant Conservation Centre said the bull was found a week before the capture, and tranquilised that day for the removal.
“We have to be careful with wild elephants. This guy, we’ve been following him for more than a year, on and off. It’s (been) difficult to catch him,” he said.
Pointing at the oil palm trees and the thick foliage beyond, he said once-thick jungles turned into plantations saw elephants coming in and raiding them.
“So we have to come in,” he said.
This is elephant translocation, where those in conflict with humans are moved from rural Malaysia and taken elsewhere.
It is a process that has seen nearly 700 attempts in the Peninsular since 1974, with 398 elephants trespassing into human territory shifted elsewhere.
There were 8,583 complaints on human-elephant conflict recorded from 2004 to 2013, though the number has dropped in recent years.
A number of these came from Kampung Durian Bador’s bull, said village chief Wan Rozali Wan Ismail, 54. On each visit, the bull would destroy half a football field’s worth of fruits, trees and some fences.
“He likes to eat (oil palm) saplings. Sometimes he goes for cempedak, durian and langsat.
“When he sees us (in the jungle), he runs. But sometimes he comes (to our village). This is his area,” he said, adding that the land there was once part of the forest.
Nottingham University Malaysia’s Associate Prof Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz said elephants were drawn to the edges of forests as there was more food there than in the deep jungle.
“Elephants are edge specialists. They live between the forest and the open areas. (So) when we clear (more) patches of forest, we are increasing this interface (area).
“We are creating ecological conditions that elephants favour, but humans don’t tolerate them,” he said.
Unlike countries such as Sri Lanka, where elephants are revered, here they are seen as very large pests.
Damage by elephants amounted to RM18.8mil between 2005 and 2010 nationwide, with more than 70% being crop damage.
Plantations appear to be the most commonly hit, followed by farms. In one example, over RM78mil losses were recorded in oil palm areas from 1975 to 1978.
To reduce elephant induced losses, the Federal Government has erected electric fencing. About 262km were set up under the 9th and 10th Malaysia Plans.
However, fencing and translocation have certain limitations. It is understood that Perhilitan only has 1,500 officers nationwide, barely enough to handle elephants alone, let alone other animals.
Even Perhilitan has admitted that translocation should be a last resort.
In its National Elephant Conservation Action Plan (NECAP) document, it says that the effects of removing elephants from the jungle are still poorly known.
Translocation itself may not even be effective, Ahimsa said, as some elephants were known to move back to the places where they were captured, though little data is available on this.
In one example, he said, six elephants moved to the Endau-Rompin National Park were found to have left it, possibly to return to where it came from.
Not every translocation is a success, however. Some 149 have died during the process, many due to stress. About 40 were gunned down by rangers in self-defence, and there have been some cases of rangers killed.
Still, translocation is better than the earlier method to solve the problem. Before 1974, offending elephants were gunned down, with some 120 shot dead between 1960 and 1969.
It is not known exactly how much money has been spent to keep elephants and people apart. Each translocation attempt itself --whatever the result-- costs up to RM40,000 each.
Proper land use, said experts, play a big role in making sure that forests do not become fragmented, or even lost.
Former Perhilitan Kelantan assistant director Zaharil Dzulkafly said few state officials think of wildlife when they allowed forests to be cleared.
He said developers were required to submit Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) reports to state governments when clearing jungles but based on his own experience, few did.
“There are some who have never submitted EIA reports, while others submitted only after forests and habitats were destroyed,” he said.
For those who did submit, complying was another story, Zaharil said.
He added that the authorities, especially in Kelantan, did not seem to care about wildlife.
He said a May 2014 notice requiring areas of 500ha or more to have Detailed EIAs did not mention wildlife.
“From what I see in Kelantan, most do not comply (with EIAs) especially when it comes to wildlife and biodiversity.”
He said a former state forestry director (from another state) once asked in a conference why people needed to be bothered about wildlife going extinct, given that the dinosaurs themselves went extinct.
There is little information on what would happen to a forest if elephants were to be taken out of them.
Some, like Ahimsa, believed that plants and smaller animals that depend on them might just disappear.
“Elephants are a keystone species. They’re like gardeners. With elephants, you have geckos and lizards that live in the branches they break. Flies and beetles are attracted to their dung,” he explained.
Forestry consultant Lim Teck Wyn said forests with less biodiversity could easily “bounce back” after they were damaged, be it by storms, or fires.
“A monoculture such as an oil palm or rubber plantation is very susceptible to disturbance,” he said.
He said the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s saw over a million people in Ireland die, after a disease spoiled potatoes, a monoculture there then.
However, conflict between humans and elephants is doomed to carry on as Malaysia’s shrinking jungles are cleared for development.
Environmental group Mongabay estimates that 4.7 million ha of primary forest cover were lost nationwide, larger than the size of Pahang, from 2000 to 2012.
An additional 393,500ha - nearly half the size of Selangor- are expected to used as plantations by 2020. Half of this might be in the Peninsular.
In 2011, the Plantation Industries and Commodities Ministry proposed 13,000ha of new rubber area each year.
Today, there may be fewer than 1,700 wild elephants left in the Peninsular.
Perhilitan (biodiversity conservation) director Salman Saaban said conflict would normally occur when forests were cleared for development.
“Human population and development keep increasing, while natural resources are diminishing.
“It’s an uphill task and and very difficult to change public perception. But we should somehow have a balance between human and elephant needs,” he said.
He advised the public to be more tolerant of elephants.
But as far as Wan Rozali and his villagers were concerned, moving away the elephants was the best thing for the village.
“We are very happy that Perhilitan has come to take the elephant away,” he said, before the bull was taken out of his village. Graphics.