The Elephant in the Room

They stand around the corpse – nudging it; examining it; paying homage to it. Tears streak the faces of some. Others raise a foot or rock back and forth in reverence. For the next few hours, or even days, they will mourn before moving on.

Wildlife experts have observed such scenes when an elephant dies – other elephants acting in ways that indicate mourning. In addition to showing empathy, these amazing creatures can distinguish between different languages, use tools and exhibit close social bonds.

In search of food, Bornean Pygmy elephants have been known to knock down wooden posts to get past electric fences bordering oil palm plantations. They are said to have a fondness for palm tree shoots. An estimated 1500 pygmy elephants roam the forests of Borneo island, most of which are found along the banks of the Kinabatangan River in the Malaysian state of Sabah.


Since 2015, TFT has been working with Sabahan farmers in the Beluran and Telupid districts, mapping over 300 hectares of land. Field staff from TFT’s Rurality initiative have been interviewing farmers, conducting field surveys, organizing community gatherings and implementing training sessions.

RDD (Rural Dynamics Diagnostic) interviews and continuous engagement with smallholder farmers have shown that elephant encroachment has been an issue for many years. Young palm trees from recent replanting have aggravated the situation in villages such as Kampung Ulu Muanad, Beluran, where farmers indirectly supply to Nestlé via IJM Plantations-owned Desa Talisai Palm Oil Mill.

In response to these findings, TFT is working with IJM Plantations, HUTAN and Danau Girang Field Study Centre (DGFC) to develop a work plan to mitigate the human-elephant conflict. HUTAN is a Sabah-based organisation involved in community-based research and conservation. The Danau Girang Field Centre (DGFC) is a collaborative research and training facility managed by the Sabah Wildlife Department and Cardiff University.

The work plan comprises three elements -
Community empowerment, conducting a deeper ecological study, and identifying a long-term strategy to manage conflicts.
Prasad Vasudevon, Rurality Country Coordinator in Malaysia

Within the long-term strategy, potential solutions include translocation, fencing and forming a warden group. Translocation and fencing are costly and require support for effective implementation. Translocation efforts could be thwarted by the return of elephants, who have incredible memories.

Therefore, the most immediately feasible solution, given financial and technical constraints, is the formation of a warden group to organise and empower the farmers, Prasad said. This group will also serve as crucial support for other elements of the work plan – the ecological study and long-term conflict management strategy.

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The idea of a volunteer warden group was first introduced to smallholders from Beluran during a meeting held at Desa Talisai in November 2016. Villagers from a HUTAN-initiated volunteer warden group in Kinabatangan also participated in the meeting. This led to sharing of experiences in managing the issue, with both groups mentioning using sound to scare elephants away. This is no longer effective, because the elephants have gotten used to the sound. Reception to the formation of a warden group in Beluran was encouraging, Prasad said.

Since this meeting, TFT has implemented other solutions to empower and organise the farmers. Among them are a What’s App group to share information on agricultural practices and elephant attacks. Other activities include involvement in mapping, field training sessions, workshops and organising smallholder gatherings. The Rurality field team’s on-the-ground presence allows them to share best management practices and improve record-keeping among smallholders.

In April 2017, based on information from smallholders regarding neighbouring plantations, IJMP hosted another meeting at their premises. This meeting was facilitated by the Sabah Wildlife Department and attended by smallholder farmers and nearby plantations. Discussions revolved around the human-elephant issue, with smallholders feeling grateful for the space to discuss their challenges with the wildlife department, Prasad said.

During another meeting, a HUTAN researcher shared her experience of elephants being afraid of human smell. After hearing this, a farmer from Ulu Muanad used human hair bought from a barber on his crops, Prasad said.

In a recent visit to his farm, he told me the elephant raiding in his field had reduced. It was proposed that this would solve beetle issues as well, but progress is slow.

The key impact of TFT’s work so far has been to create new connections where there were none before –between farmers in Beluran and other stakeholders, such as local conservation organisations, the wildlife department, mills and plantations.

This is a real example of Rurality’s vision of creating connectivity between stakeholders. It also shows TFT’s vision of industry players to cooperating to help smallholders.
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