Human-elephant conflict throughout elephant ranges in Malaysia has been steadily increasing since the 90s because of continued loss of the elephant habitat, which forces the pachyderms to encroach into plantations in search of food, water and mates.
Elephants living on the fringes of forests bordering oil palm plantations and fruit crop plantations are the most affected. Recent deaths of elephants with gunshot wounds bring the man-elephant conflict into sharp focus.
Deforestation, encroachment, forest fires, establishment of power and irrigation projects and industries are fast shrinking their habitat. Mushrooming of illegal settlements along bamboo forests, which served as an important food source for elephants, is forcing them out.
Various government agricultural land schemes such as Federal Land Development Authority (Felda), Rubber Industry Smallholding Development Authority (Risda) and Federal Land Conversion and Rehabilitation Authority (Felcra) develop land causing fragmented forests where the situation is worsened by logging activities within.
The conversion of prime elephant habitat into oil palm and rubber plantations forces animals out of the forests in search of food. Land owners resort to killing the elephants by using shotguns which are not always successful or necessarily legal. Poaching also poses a serious threat to the population of these animals.
With further degradation and diversion of elephant habitats for human activities, there is clearly a need for studying and mitigating the growing conflict, particularly Sabah, where pygmy elephants are seriously endangered.
A question that needs to be asked is: Has the Sabah government and the wildlife authorites done a reasonable job in protecting its elephants? Hardly as the government is pushing ahead with pro-industry policies in the name of development. Migratory routes of elephants are often disrupted with human encroachment, leaving the animal populations isolated.
Fragile ecosystem sustaining one the most endangered species on our land, is collapsing under the weight of relentless industrialisation and urbanisation.
It all boils down to the problem of too many humans and too little land, leading to competition for resources and more encounters between elephants and humans.
With many elephant numbers reaching carrying capacity in many of our national parks where elephant population may be double the park’s carrying capacity, and with both human and elephant populations increasing, the two will have to learn to live together and anything that can reduce conflict must surely be embraced.
There is clearly a need for studying and mitigating the growing conflict in elephant range states where insightful and proactive measures and conservation strategies will have to be adopted.
The first step will be to develop regulatory mechanisms that stop habitat loss, fragmentation and degradation that initiate and escalate human elephant conflicts to secure a future for what is one of the world’s most exotic, intelligent and humble animal.
SM MOHAMED IDRIS is president of Sahabat Alam Malaysia.