Forever Sabah’s Watersheds and Communities Programme began working in Telupid in 2014, exploring the challenges of fragmented landscapes. One of the key issues raised in the field was the return of elephant herds to Telupid in 2014 which had been absent since the major forest fires of mid-1980s. In the past these elephants had co-existed with small Dusun communities feeding in the riparian grasslands of the Labuk River and migrating between and across the then much larger forests in the region.
In the intervening years most of the Telupid forests had been converted to oil palm, and these returning herds appear to have learned how to sustain themselves in oil palm plantations (eating young palms, and the chipped old palms during planting of the second cycle), using the Forest Reserves for security and socialization during the day. Since Telupid’s smallholders lacked the capital to fence their young palms, they often took the brunt of elephant damage, and following the long absence of the species, these communities were unsure and sometimes divided about how to deal with elephant presence. Elephants also damaged bananas and other crops and entered villages, and even a school, and began to encounter traffic on the main highway. The issue became prominent politically, and several elephants were relocated by the Wildlife Rescue Unit, some of whom died while others returned to Telupid. From March to December 2016, Forever Sabah engaged with the Telupid District Office to help them develop a response to this “Human Elephant Conflict”. On the basis of Forever Sabah’s interaction with people from these villages, who emphasized that there were historical cultural protocols that could enable mutual respect with elephants, we re-framed this effort to being around “Human Elephant Harmony” (HEH).
The HEH program began in Telupid in 2016, convening workshops in the three villages experiencing elephant presence (Kg. Liningkung, Kg. Bauto, Kg. Gambaron), adding a fourth village (Kg. Telupid Batu 4) in 2018. The workshops and discussions with the relevant government agencies and NGO wildlife experts generated a four-fold plan which was agreed with the District Office and other stakeholders. This involved (a) the creation and training of a Community Elephant Ranger Team to transform interactions between elephants and people from conflict towards harmony; (b) identification of area/s where elephants could meet their needs in safety (the “elezone”); (c) the development of citizen science capacities in Telupid communities to understand elephants in this landscape in partnership with wildlife NGOs; and (d) the installation of electric fences in selected areas to protect vulnerable communities and their lands. .
The HEH Project proceeded to seek out members of the community who were interested in becoming members of the Community Elephant Ranger Team. The team also carries a local name, Kopisuladan di Aki which means friendship between villagers and elephants in Dusun LabukThose who came forward were people who had already started to play these roles informally, or in voluntary roles with the Sabah Wildlife Department. In February 2018 the National Conservation Trust Fund provided a 22-month grant of RM 200,000 to grow this program, co-financed by the United States Shared Earth Foundation (USD 65,000), and over the next two years the CERT Team has become a well-trained group of nine young professionals with a deep field knowledge of elephants.
Training and support have been received from Forever Sabah citizen science and mapping specialists (Dr. Casey Ng, Philip@Linggit Chin and Dr. Ken Wilson), Dr. Nurzhafarina Othman of Seratu Aatai and Hutan-KOCP and other specialists; and documentation and film training has been received from Suara/Borneo Eco Film Festival and Forever Sabah. Five have graduated as Honorary Wildlife Wardens. Detailed mapping of elephant use of the landscape, supplemented by collaring data from Danau Girang Field Centre, has led to the identification of potential “elezone” areas and pointed up the need to engage closely with the planning process of the Pan Borneo Highway to avoid highway construction along an elephant migration route and key feeding and refuge area in Tawai Forest Reserve. We have worked closely with efforts to relocate this highway north of Tawai Protected Forest Reserve and are currently advancing details with the Sabah Government around re-routing this road outside of elephant range.
With the assistance of an Oregon State University intern, Sadaqa Hamblin, the CERT team documented the scale of elephant damage in smallholder oil palm plantations, pointing up the need for some form of compensation. In this process the CERT Team has come to realize that elephants need access to oil palm and oil palm estates to meet their food needs. And we have spent years watching how elephants systematically track (through sound and smell) the machinery involved in clearing mature oil palm so that they can peacefully feed on chipped waste from the re-planting cycle. We have seen that we need to work with elephants to make oil palm plantations safer for their food needs.
The CERT have been actively sharing their stories among Sabahan and have completed some short films, and are gathering material for a proper documentary while learning at the same time.
Pilot visits for international tourists who want to see elephants were successfully conducted prior to the COVID Pandemic: we see that it is viable and that they are interested in our cultural connection to elephants, and about how elephants, being thoughtful and adaptive, can thrive with oil palm if humans can also learn how to interact with respect.
Although CERT could not impact the location of the first electric fence in Kg. Gambaron, CERT was able to work with the Sabah Forestry Dept and community members in Kg. Bauto to find a more effective and manageable location for the second electric fence, and CERT has played a lead role in the maintenance of this fence with the community.
The CERT team have systematically physically presenced themselves in human-elephant encounters, which are normally around oil palm consumption, and have deescalated conflict while assisting elephants return to the forest, both through cultural-mediated “conversations” and through driving them to safety. We have determined that there are about 25-50 elephants visiting Telupid as the most northernmost extent of the larger Central Sabahan elephant population.
There has been no more attempted translocation of elephants from this area since the establishment of CERT. We are seeing several baby elephants successfully raised in Telupid. Although there are still many challenges, Phase One was a big success.
Since 2020, CERT in collaboration with Seratu Aatai, HUTAN and Sabah Forestry Department, have conducted camera trap surveys of wildlife in the Tawai Forest Reserve. The surveys found 38 species of wildlife in the forest, in addition to Elephant and other rare and threatened wildlife species such as Orang Utan, Sunbear, Bornean Clouded Leopard and the Bornean Peacock Pheasant. This is only the third record for the Borneo Peacock Pheasant in Sabah since 1890, and scientist recently published that they believed it to be extinct in Sabah. The Tawai Forest camera traps highlighted both the biodiversity value of this forest and hence the need to relocate the Pan Borneo Highway, but they also spotlighted the level of poaching occurring in this fully Protected Area which the state has limited capacity to patrol. Although poachers rarely kill elephants for ivory in Sabah large numbers of especially younger elephants suffer injuries and death from snares left for wild pigs, deer and other species. Particularly pitiful are injuries to their trunk.
CERT’s project experience over the last several years, combined with their citizen science and discussion with Sabah’s wildlife specialists have led to the following understanding of the issues we seek to tackle – from both the elephants’ point of view, and from the human point of view. This is summarized in our three-year plan in the Table Below.
The findings and strategies developed in this document map closely to the Bornean Elephant Action Plan for Sabah 2020-2029 developed through stakeholder engagement among government departments, NGOs and elephant specialists.
The experience of HEH and CERT since 2016 also led to the development of a Theory of Change for Phase II (2020-2023) that reflects all that we have learned about the issues and what a transformational change process would involve.
This HEH Theory of Change aligns closely with principle actions proposed by the Bornean Elephant Action Plan for Sabah 2020-2029 for the Central Sabah Range, which include “Action 3: Create, train and support teams of ‘Community Elephant Rangers’ in villages affected by HECs to mitigate conflicts peacefully”, “Action 2: Identify all bottlenecks created by the Pan Borneo Highway or any other development project and that will jeopardize elephant connectivity, and propose adequate mitigation measures”, “Action 4: Create teams of HWW’s [Honorary Wildlife Wardens] who will support law enforcement agencies in the area” and “Action 6: Conduct joint anti-snaring operations with relevant enforcement agencies to remove snares in hotspot areas”.
Where the HEH program is particularly cutting edge is in the scale of its investment in a community-based organization, Kopisuladan di Aki, which LEAP/Forever Sabah hopes to graduate towards organizational independence, whilst it remains working closely programmatically with other NGOs, elephant specialists, government agencies and others in realizing its mission. Secondly, and based on “listening” to the elephants through close observation, HEH concludes that access to oil palm will be key to elephant nutrition in these new landscapes, and therefore we will invest considerable effort in helping the plantations (small, medium and large) to embrace the presence of elephants feeding in their estates in ways that are safe for elephants and people, and allow the “exchange” of senescent oil palm for elephant manure/dung. In other words, HEH is interested in more than just corridors between Forest Reserves, important as those are, and does not believe that confining elephants to Forest Reserves will lead to healthy populations. There is risk for elephants outside of Reserves, but elephants are making the right judgment call when they enter the oil palm because reduced nutrition would likely have a worse impact on population dynamics (probably mainly by depressing their birthrate by delaying sexual maturity and lengthening birth interval) than does the current pattern and level of deaths on plantations.
The HEH Program meanwhile welcomes the opportunities to partner closely with Sabah’s other elephant conservation programs, with which it shares many goals and values. Among other things we anticipate continued collaboration around reducing the threats of road development through the Humans Habitats Highways Coalition, we hope to continue to benefit from training, advice and other support from Seratu Aatai/Hutan KOCP, has collaborated with Danau Girang Field Centre on collaring elephants and camera traps. The team has also discussed training and extension with WWF, with RESPECT around increasing elephant food supplies in Laju Cahaya, and with all parties in an emergent elephant conservation coalition around realizing the Bornean Elephant Action Plan and improving public understanding and conservation policy in Sabah.
Full implementation of Phase II will cost about $115,000/year. We currently have some core support from The Shared Earth Foundation and from LEAP, a Sabahan NGO with a strong history of nurturing local conservation initiatives and institutions. Seratu Aatai and Hutan has provided a small grant and technical support for camera trap use. The Sabah Forestry Department has also allocated for our use their former timber extraction control point building which is located at a key point between the settled area of Telupid and the area used as a refuge by our elephant population. Our intention is to use this building as a base for education, control and work. Meanwhile, we are awaiting a decision on a second round of funding from Malaysia’s National Conservation Trust Fund (NTCF) at $60,000/year for two years. We will press through this work as and when resources become available. Please join us.
The HEH team plans to continue to build the capacity, confidence, networks, technical skills and institutional independence of the Telupid Community Elephant Ranger Team (Kopisuladan di Aki, as they refer to themselves in Dusun) through facilitating training, learning activities, reflection and administrative and organizational accompaniment. CERT plans both further training of the existing team, and to train more volunteer community rangers. Training sessions will be conducted once every month with skills ranging from monitoring elephants in the field, maintenance of the electric fence, using GPS applications such as Garmin GPS, ViewRanger and GPS Camera to collect data, to community organizing. Forever Sabah management and administrative staff will meanwhile facilitate learning about administration and management, including through exchange visits, while opportunities for self-representation at local and international events will support networking and confidence. The CERT team acknowledge limited ability to read, write and converse in English, however are keen to learn the language to expand their knowledge with more reference materials as well as thier circle of communication.
CERT intends to further build our capacity in conducting research study in Telupid, wanting to further understand the human-elephant relationship, and they want this to be a continuous effort. Instead of just assisting scientists, they want to be able to work together with them in sharing knowledge. In Telupid, the team would like to contribute to the local authorities making more informed decisions in district land use plans. Wildlife and elephant corridors linking the forest patches can only be identified by doing proper study of actual elephant movements. Establishment of secure corridors may help reduce elephant visits to villages and sites of infrastructure.
CERT wants to study more of the ecology of the elephants, wanting to better learn the behaviour of each individual and their group composition. They want to know subtle behaviours such as the difference when the elephant is really attacking and a mock charge. Elephant dung could tell more about what they eat and the relative age of an individual. Identifying each sub-group can help CERT identify which groups go to the villages or oil palm estate more often. Again, they will do this together with other organizations specializing on elephants.
As a continuation of the HEH project and CERT, the team will continue to undertake outreach awareness-raising programmes in the schools in Telupid, pre-school, primary school and secondary school; wanting the communities and all people to know that animals have their importance to continue to exist in the wild. They also want to help distribute those prepared by Sabah Wildlife Department especially the ones highlighting on the protected wildlife, why are they protected and the laws protecting them. This is to inform as many people as possible that some wildlife species are really threatened and we don’t want extinction as happened to the Sumatran Rhinoceros, the last one which, died on 22 November 2019. On top of education, the economics of smallholder compensation as well as eco-tourism possibilities are being looked into. Their work will involve:
CERT has begun to systematically change how people react to elephants in these villages by restoring values of respect and encouraging people to behave more predictably and less aggressively. When people are more predictable elephants are too. But that work will need to continue as people rebuild cultural relationships with elephants and have more positive encounters, they are also less likely to demand punitive action against elephants through political channels. Cultural change is a slow process and this requires continued efforts for more years.
Managing human-elephant interactions also means supporting the government, private plantations and communities to do better planning about where to locate infrastructure, including the Pan Borneo Highway, electric fences and other land uses. On the enforcement side, the CERT will conduct regular patrols along the forest-plantations-villages boundary to reduce poaching as well as removing snare traps.
To advance this objective, CERT will partner with conservation biologists to assess elephants’ current feeding patterns and the potential to improve food sources in forest, oil palm and deforested (grassy) areas. This will be followed up with partnerships to grow and plant seedlings and otherwise improve elephant food supplies to reduce conflict and unpredictability of human-elephant encounters.
In order to shift public understanding about elephants in Sabah, the CERT members aims to produce regular video shorts, a longer film and newspaper/social media coverage of elephant issues in Telupid. The team aims to document individual and group behaviour, the injuries that they are suffering from because of snares, and the full range of human-elephant interaction. Most importantly, they to produce a film that chronicles their journey, from mostly fear and anger to compassion and harmony. Such publications are aimed to convey strong messages to the viewers to raise their awareness about protecting the elephants and prove that it is possible for humans and elephants to co-exist in Telupid. The HEH project will also convene regular meetings with stakeholders to provide discourse on indigenous ownership and vision in conservation and build a new constituency and paradigm of locally-driven action that can build political will and funding for a more diverse and resilient conservation constituency in Sabah
Akhirnya collaring gajah berjaya. 💪🏻