Pygmy Elephants face an Uncertain Future
Baby elephants in Sabah are at risk of being orphaned because their mother may fall victim to crimes committed by farmers and plantation workers. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Every now and then reports of orphaned Bornean pygmy elephants being rescued by the Sabah Wildlife Department surface. These baby elephants have become lost while their mothers are nowhere to be seen. In the past seven years 22 baby elephants have been rescued this way. Many of them cannot survive, however, with half of these baby elephants dying.
Why is this happening? All signs point to continued assaults on the elephants’ habitats, painting a dismal picture of the future of elephants in Sabah. The rapid shrinkage of forest cover and large-scale encroachment on elephant corridors are the main factors behind this escalating problem. The last decade has seen appalling destruction of forests, something that is having direct effects on wild elephant populations. They are losing their habitual territories and young calves are routinely orphaned.
Elephants may soon disappear because of habitat destruction and fragmentation by plantation agencies, palm oil developers and logging industries.
When elephants come into conflict with people it is a battle in which the gentle animals are destined to lose. Those responsible for land clearance are highly aware of the increased risks of elephants coming into conflict with people and the subsequent fatalities that may arise. Many plantation owners and farmers now see elephants as enemies, yet it is humans, not the pachyderms, who are responsible for this situation. Plantation workers may resort to poisoning, killing and poaching elephants, although the exact reasons behind the increasing number of elephant orphans cannot always be established.
What is not in doubt, however, is that driven out of their natural habitat by human-induced factors, elephants are exposed to all sorts of dangers, including road accidents. Only recently a female pygmy elephant was shot dead in Sabah, likely by a plantation worker. Conservationists have repeatedly pointed out that the elephants have been compelled to come out into the open from forests because of shrinking habitats. Once pristine forests, which are home to a large number of elephants along with other fauna, are being destroyed and degraded by human activities. Soon wild elephants will have no more refuge.
The solution to man-elephant conflicts lies in rectifying and undoing the wrongs of the past decades. Those responsible for taking away the habitats of elephants have to admit their mistakes, accept their faults and make sincere efforts to rectify the situation with stepped-up commitment towards ensuring long-term sustainable management of remaining forests. Measures that can be taken include consolidating existing good habitats and managing the populations of elephants that fall outside the demarcated good habitats. One approach is to demarcate good habitats as ‘elephant reserves’ while another is to secure elephant corridors between these good habitats.
Yet given the rapid ravages of forested lands by plantation companies the question is: is there any space left for Borneo’ pygmy elephants? Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM) calls on the oil palm industry and other land agencies to rectify the situation rather than continue to pay lip service to rehabilitation efforts.
Moreover, oil palm plantation companies should create and run appropriate protection systems of conservation in their concession areas and assist the Sabah Wildlife Department in arresting their workers suspected of poisoning, killing or otherwise harming elephants.
The best way to address this in the short term is through better law enforcement to show that Sabah’s wildlife laws are being taken seriously. The government and wildlife authorities should focus their law enforcement initiatives on areas where deforestation continues to take place. Such initiatives need to be scaled up. The absence of law enforcement will only ensure that people’s crimes and brutality to elephants continue, leading to more and more orphaned baby elephants.
The right to life and the right for living space are not privileges exclusive to human beings. Ample living space should be secured for elephants too so that they can live peacefully with people in perpetuity.
By SM Mohd Idris. The author is president of the conservationist group Sahabat Alam Malaysia.