Humans Can Learn How To Live Together From Elephants, Says Zoology Student (Malaysia)


Hana Maher, Malaysian Digest

Date Published

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“Did you know elephants have three times more neurons than humans?,” 22-year-old Zoology and Conservation student, Zaty Hanis, from Wales, United Kingdom shared with Malaysian Digest.

“Elephants are incredibly smart animals. One trait that supports this fact is their ability to use tools as elephants have been known to use sticks to scratch themselves in areas that’s difficult for them to reach.”

During her last semester break, Zaty had the opportunity to volunteer at the Kuala Gandah Elephant Conservation Centre and Zaty shared the valuable insight she gained into the world of these fast disappearing gentle giants.

“Initially I had doubts about visiting the sanctuary as most conservation centres are zoos in disguise, which in my opinion are where animals are exploited for our twisted amusement.

“But to my surprise, the elephants are well taken care off and seemed happy as these gentle giants are rescued and rehomed within the sanctuary.”

Though Zaty reminisced that her favourite bit from the experience was when she ‘bathed’ with a nine-year-old baby elephant named Langsat in the river and the calf’s playful nature emerged.

“Elephants typically flap their ears when they’re happy or excited and Langsat flapped her ears like there was no tomorrow. She even sprayed water over herself with her trunk,” Zaty gleefully shared.

“It was an adorable sight and I know it sounds silly, but you can genuinely feel that she’s happy.”

And like any other elephant-lover, Zaty is deeply saddened to learn that elephant population in Malaysia is on the brink of extinction and points out humans can learn a thing or two from the gentle giants.

It goes without saying that news of the seven most wanted poachers being apprehended by Department of Wildlife and National Parks (PERHILITAN) a few weeks back calls for a celebration.

But are we doing enough?

Despite the recent bust being one of the biggest thus far, it doesn’t dismiss the fact that the elephant population in Malaysia is slowly decreasing as Ele Aid estimates that there are currently between 2,351 and 3,066 elephants in the wild.

Malaysian Digest has decided to put a spotlight on these gentle giants in conjunction with World Wildlife Day today in an effort to help save them from extinction.

Humans Can Learn A Thing Or Two From Elephants

Zaty went on to paint a picture of an animal that in many ways appears to have more humanity and intelligence than most people.

She relayed to Malaysian Digest that whilst on a college trip to South Africa, she and her peers witnessed an African elephant digging a hole – with its trunk – to reach alternative water sources and thus creating waterholes that can be used by other animals.

“But that’s not as amazing as their ability to distinguished differences in human age, gender and ethnicity purely by the sound of the person’s voice and this has been proven in a 2013 study by researchers at the University of Sussex,” she conveyed and adding that elephants comprehend human body language well.

“Both elephants and humans have a long life span, strong family ties, and understand death. But we can certainly learn a few things from elephants, especially what it means to be living in a society,” Zaty points out.

“Elephants practice inclusion. If a calf is caught bullying a younger member, they’ll be reprimanded by the rest of the herd or worse excluded — a terrible punishment for a species that thrives on social interactions and physical touch.

“Elephants can also perceive the emotions of others and are known to help one another in adversity, from invisible rumbles alerting others of danger to overt physical gestures; which is why elephants are known to be kind and helpful animals.”

As a matter of fact, last October Malaysian Digest reported on a five-year-old elephant in Thailand rushing to save a man’s life from drowning.

Though Zaty opined that the most relevant trait that we can learn from elephants is their ability to listen and react accordingly.

“A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences revealed that elephants are able to distinguish whether a predator is worth fussing over or not, which is immensely imperative for wild populations competing with other animals over food and space.

“Now I don’t know about you, but I genuinely believe that will be a useful trait for every human to practice,” she wittily said.

However, despite their lovable human traits that make these mammals so endearing to many people like Zaty, unless we act now, these majestic creatures might no longer walk the earth in the very near future.

“There Will No Longer Be Wild Bornean Elephants In The World,” NGO Warns

The Wildlife Rescue Unit (WRU) is tasked with this unenviable job of trying to mitigate Human-Elephant Conflicts (HEC) since its establishment in 2010.

They get called to the rescue of abandoned calves, sick and/or injured elephants rescue, translocations of displaced elephants and assisting the Sabah Wildlife Department in elephant control operations in hot spots areas.

WRU is a division of the Sabah Wildlife Department, essentially a mobile team to enhance preservation and conservation of wildlife in Sabah.

“A total of 189 elephants have been translocated by WRU from conflict areas to various forest reserves across Sabah thus far,” WRU explained.

“Since 2014, rescued orphan elephants have been brought to the Sepilok Wildlife Care Centre located in the Sepilok Orangutan Centre due to space and density constraints in Lok Kawi Wildlife Park.”

WRU work in Sabah has taken on a new urgency as media reports as recent as January this year cite wanton killings even on an elephant fitted with a satelite collar by the department.

“For as long as our male elephants are walking in our forests with grown tusks, they will be targeted,” he added.

However, WRU shared how translocation is a complicated process that requires the rescued elephants to bond with caretakers and ensuring a suitable diet is equally important during the translocation operation.

“There are currently five rescued elephant calves in Sepilok, three adult elephants in the Bornean Elephant Sanctuary and a mix group of 15 elephants in Lok Kawi Wildlife Park – all these elephants are native Bornean Elephant species (Elephas maximus borneensis) and are unique to the island of Borneo.

“Providing elephants with sufficient area to move about along with ensuring hygienic cleanliness of their enclosure are the most vital part of caring for elephants,” WRU highlighted.

WRU emphasised that elephants are keystone species to maintain biodiversity of the surroundings and warns of far-reaching impact if they disappear forever.

“Specifically, Bornean Elephants are native in Borneo which majority of its species reside within Sabah and in the event that the species are met with extinction, there will no longer be a wild Bornean Elephants in the world,” WRU lamented.

Poaching Is Not The Only Risk Elephants Face, Reveals NGO

As pointed out by WRU, there is no time to waste and there is never enough manpower to combat human greed; an NGO thats finds itself fighting an uphill battle against poachers is TRAFFIC.

TRAFFIC Southeast Asia is a non-governmental organisation that monitors the trade of wild animals and plants, which includes the legal and illegal trade of wildlife. However, much of their work focuses on the illegal elements of the trade – covering the whole of Southeast Asia.

Senior Communications Officer Elizabeth John, shared that elephants are known to be poached for its skin, ivory tusks and bones.

“TRAFFIC doesn’t discuss the prices of an elephant ivory. But we can say it is a highly sought-after luxury item, particularly as a decorative item such as carvings and statues as well as jewelleries,” she elaborated.

But poaching is not the only threat that contributes to elephant’s declining population as Elizabeth relayed that elephants in Malaysia have lost most of its habitat over the centuries due to development, agriculture and large infrastructure projects.

“The projects take up limited forested land and subsequently making the situation far more difficult for elephants. This leaves elephant populations in small fragmented pockets of land and increasingly puts them in conflict with humans,” she added.

“In the event that these challenges are not addressed, the increased human-elephant conflict due to continued habitat loss will lead to a decrease in population – leading to retaliatory killing or targeted hunting for the elephant’s parts and will disrupt the elephant’s movements as well as their long-term survival.”

“In situation like this, elephants are typically translocated but without thorough thought into their long-term survival – their long migration routes and the eventual conflict with human settlements indicate that translocation is not a long-term viable solution,” she voiced.

TRAFFIC emphasised that recent developments is a serious cause for concern for the future of Malaysia’s elephants.

“This includes the arrest of major elephant poaching gang by PERHILITAN and the Armed Forces, as well as the seizure of elephant tusks in premises in Malaysia, late last year.

“Enforcement is improving, though much more needs to be done to investigate and halt poaching activities completely. Malaysia has a long way to go in land use management – which is an issue that has a huge impact on elephant habitat – and the protection of forests,” she opined.

Elizabeth advised authorities to take a more holistic approach in terms of land use planning and species protection in the country.

“Peninsular Malaysia has an Elephant Conservation Action Plan, this needs the support of state governments that have control over land where elephants now roam,” she added.

“The Federal Government must bolster its funding and institutional support for enforcement agencies working to safeguard elephants.”

Fighting Extinction With Education

The Department of Wildlife and National Parks (PERHILITAN) in a statement to Malaysian Digesthighlighted the urgent call to action now and the key is through education.

The Wildlife Conservation Act 2010 (Act 716) already classified the Asian Elephants as a totally protected species with offences liable to a fine exceeding RM100,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding three years or both.

However these punishments do not appear to deter those out to make money from illegal poaching.

“Nevertheless, according to reliable sources there might be more than one group involved. Our wildlife crime intelligence unit are still gathering information and monitoring the situation,” PERHILITAN said.

The department views existing laws in general are not comprehensive enough to combat wildlife poaching and trafficking and is in the process of increasing penalties particularly regarding the offences related to totally protected species like elephants.

PERHILITAN shared that in the early 1950s, records show that 90% of the total land area in Peninsular Malaysia was covered by forest and by 2015, forest cover had been reduced to just 43.8%.

From the 1990s, the pattern of forest conversion changed slightly as large areas of forest have been converted to other land-uses, especially housing and urban areas.

“HEC in Peninsular Malaysia was reported as early in1900s and is currently considered a major human-wildlife conflict. As more forests are cleared, traditional elephant range areas become fragmented and elephants end up roaming in plantations in their search for food, water and mates.

“These crop-raiding elephants cause large financial losses to plantation owners. Frustrated farmers sometimes take their own action by poisoning elephants. According to a recently conducted study, 75.5% farmers cannot live with HEC and 74.8% were not willing to bear costs related to HEC,” PERHILITAN highlighted.

Be that as it may, PERHILTAN emphasised that early education and awareness of elephant conservation is needed.

“Education of the young generation is one aspect that is indispensable for future generations to increase knowledge and tolerance of human-elephant conflict to promote awareness of sharing the same landscape with elephants,” PERHILITAN explained.

“By understanding the nature and the needs of the elephant, society will have more tolerance rather than see it as a threat.

“Else, the demand for ivory products can be one of the contributions to elephant poaching. When the demand is high, the supply will increase as well,” and adding that the demand for ivory in the black market in certain countries should be put to an end.

With that thought in mind, PERHILTAN urges society to be their eyes and ears for any suspicious acts involving wildlife crime and provide the info via their hotline 1-800-88-5151 or Facebook page here.