The villagers of Ulu Muanad, in Beluran, Sabah on Borneo Island, Malaysia are predominantly farmers – first-generation smallholders who harvest rubber, rice, fruits, vegetables and palm oil. Sometimes birds and even monkeys would disturb their crops, but these incidents are not as aggravating as the ones they face with another unlikely neighbour: the endangered Borneo Pygmy Elephant (Elephas maximus borneensis).
The Pygmy elephant is the world’s smallest elephant. They still grow up to 2.5 metres and weigh around 2,000 kg. These large herbivores play important ecological roles in maintaining forest ecosystems by promoting biodiversity, recycling nutrients and dispersing seed that help forests grow faster. Subsequently, their declining populations might significantly change the forest’s tree composition and even its carbon storage ability.
Large animals in changing landscapes
The elephants’ former range in Sabah has been converted for development and agricultural activities. With the habitat loss and fragmentation, there are now less than 2,000 of these elephants in the state. With their natural habitats now dominated by oil palm plantations, elephants are increasingly traveling through these areas, and consequently increasing human-elephant conflicts (HEC) which cause injuries and deaths on both sides.
Farmers are struggling to protect their livelihoods and property from these animals which often cause damage to crops and eat young palm oil tree stems. These disturbances also pose a risk to the locals’ safety as well. Therefore, there needs to be a way for the smallholders to co-exist with elephants in Sabah’s oil palm landscape. With the threats from climate change and habitat fragmentation, the conservation of the Pygmy elephants in Sabah would need to ensure that these animals’ needs for fresh water, food and shelter can be secured.
Since 2016, Earthworm Foundation (EF) through its smallholder initiative (Rurality), has been working on finding ways to empower smallholders to implement effective and long term strategies to mitigate the HEC issue – a complex problem that requires a multi-stakeholder and multi-pronged approach for the conservation of the elephants. This includes mitigation strategies that aim to understand human elephant interaction, and to educate the farmers who might come into contact with these animals.
While similar initiatives are already taking place in other HEC zones in Sabah, such efforts are disconnected from the on-going responsible sourcing initiatives of brands. The formation of the HEC mitigation committee in Ulu Muanad involves plantations, mills, smallholders, The Sabah Wildlife Department (SWD) and local conservation groups (Project Seratu Aatai & HUTAN-Kinabatangan Orang Utan Conservation Project). These collaborative partnerships across the board hope to close the gaps by connecting all of these players to solve the HEC issue.
The Ulu Muanad HEC Monitoring Group consists of smallholders who are taking ownership of the situation and are trying to find long-term solutions by getting organised. They use community-based and citizen science approaches including radio collar installation to track elephants and formulate preventive strategies based on the understanding of the biology and behaviour of the animals.
Under the supervision of SWD, they will be appointed as Honorary Wildlife Wardens to assist the department in patrolling and enforcement activities. Additionally, they receive elephant reports from farmers and nearby palm oil estates and assist to chase the elephants away such as using noise cannons. These efforts are designed to make elephant conservation activities more sustainable by creating job opportunities and promoting the peer to peer concept (Ulu Muanad HEC Monitoring group mentoring other communities). This way, the communities affected by HEC will be more motivated, organised and equipped with the right tools and knowledge to adapt to this situation.
“We patrol, receive reports and monitor, together with the Wildlife Department, where there are issues of conflict with elephants. Before, we didn’t know how to overcome elephant issues in this village.”
Carrizal Jimior (Boboi), Ulu Muanad farmer and HEC Monitoring Group Volunteer
While not directly involved in the monitoring group, other farmers in Ulu Muanad still see an opportunity to play an active role in the elephant’s conservation. Jennifer Wong Oi Lan works with her husband to harvest palm oil and is aware of the increasing fragmentation of elephant populations and how this affects resource use for both human and non-human communities in this area.
“The locals call the elephants ‘Aki’ or ‘Nenek’ (ancestors or grandparent) because, before the expansion of oil palm plantations, they roamed these lands. I am angry when they eat or damage our crops, and some farmers even want them dead when this happens. But, I don’t agree, we shouldn’t kill elephants or any wildlife. When this happens, we need to move these animals to a safer place. At the end of the day, we must learn to live in harmony with them.”
Another Ulu Muanad farmer, Turus Saladou, finds that the awareness and engagement work coordinated by Rurality to be helpful in reducing the conflict. He attended a sharing session in his village conducted by Dr. Nurzhafarina Othman, founder of Project Seratu Aaatai and an elephant expert.
“According to her (Dr Farina), elephants are very sensitive to human smell and presence. I went back home and tried to find ways on how to stop the elephant. I decided to use human hair. I went to the nearest hair salon and bought 2 sacks of human hair for RM20 (USD5). The following day, I applied human hairs at the shoots of the young palm trees. The elephants came to my plot again but discovered that they did not eat the young palm trees. But there were still signs of damages – some of the trees were kicked and fell but none were eaten. I observed again for another day, week and month. To date, I have not encountered any disturbances at my farm plot, and it has been a year and a half. I think by sharing my experience it will help many other farmers in the future.”
EF invites businesses and potential funders to support Rurality’s ongoing HEC work in Ulu Muanad (Lower Kinabatangan region) and similar initiatives in other HEC zones in Sabah. The team hopes to develop an HEC mitigation toolkit for smallholders and plantations to identify HEC prone areas in the state, and their links to brand sourcing sites. Ultimately, the Rurality programme hopes to save elephant lives, scale up these solutions, and reduce economic loss and reputation damages in the palm oil supply chain of Sabah.