The elephant in the room (Malaysia)


Elena Koshy, New Straits Times

Date Published
See link for photo & images.

It’s presumed to be a 2-year-old calf lying in a pool of blood by the side of a remote highway, 130 kilometres away from the bustling capital city of Perak. The death of the young elephant may not be a significant loss to many, but to a nation that struggles to strike a balance between development and its inherent natural heritage, its death merely compounds the fact that our forested habitats are shrinking far too rapidly to support our wildlife, including our iconic elephants.

Travelling down the East-West Highway known as the Gerik-Jeli Highway flanked by forests connecting two wildlife refuges, namely the Royal Belum State Park and the Temengor Forest Reserve, drivers experience a reprieve from the city skyline which shifts into breathtaking natural vistas as they speed through the road. While connectivity within the country has improved and travelling time significantly cut down, the highway has inadvertently carved a disruptive swath through a significant wildlife habitat.

Development and agriculture have already eaten into vast tracts of forests and what’s left is fragmented and of limited use to our fauna. With their traditional territories and migration routes fragmented by development, highways and industrial mono-crops such as palm oil and rubber tree plantations, wildlife such as our elephants are forced into deadly confrontations with humans where neither species wins.

There are few places left for wildlife to roam free in Malaysia, least of all animals that take up the space and resources of an elephant.

Where Wild Elephants Roamed Free

Historically, elephants were found in large numbers throughout the dense forests of Peninsular Malaysia. In 1898, elephants were even observed in the Kuala Lumpur area, which is now considered a concrete jungle. In the early 1900s, Pahang and Negri Sembilan were reported to have the highest elephant population whereas Perak and Selangor had the least.

However, over the past 100 years, due to the forest conversions and the ever increasing demand for land, almost all lowland habitats which historically were available in the past for elephants to roam have been eliminated. According to World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), more than 100,000 Asian elephants may have existed at the start of the 20th century, but numbers have fallen by at least 50 per cent over the last three generations. And they’re still in decline today.

Development and forest conversions do not only affect Asian elephants by destroying their habitat, but also make forests and rural areas more accessible to poachers, disturb the animals’ movement around forest edges and trigger an increase in elephant crop raids, leading to human-elephant conflict.

“Peninsular Malaysia continues to see a rapid decline in elephant population due to the large-scale landscape transformation in recent decades and the consequent human-elephant conflict,” observes Professor Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz, associate professor in Tropical Conservation Ecology, University of Nottingham and principal investigator of the Management & Ecology of Malaysian Elephants (MEME).

Iconic Giants

Elephants and humans share a long history throughout our civilisation. The Asian elephant has lived alongside humans for over 4,000 years and is imbued with reverence, tradition and spirituality across many cultures. In Thailand, the elephant is a national icon: It has a national holiday designated in its honour and elephants can receive a Royal title from the King!

Reaching up to 6.4 metres in length and weighing as much as 5 tonnes, Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) are undoubtedly the continent’s largest terrestrial mammals. They’re smaller in size than their African counterparts, and have proportionally smaller ears which they keep in constant motion in order to cool themselves. Their skin ranges from dark grey to brown, with patches of pink on their forehead, ears, base of their trunk and across the chest.

Elephants need to eat an average of 150 kg per day to survive. They can spend more than two thirds of each day feeding on grasses. But they also devour large amounts of bark, roots, leaves and stems. “This is probably why they seem to favour the side of the highways,” says Campos-Arceiz wryly, pointing out that the road is typically surrounded by secondary forest and grasslands which elephants favour over food foraged in the forest. “This means that it’s not unusual to find elephants along the Gerik-Jeli highway, or even trying to cross it,” he says. Although Asian elephants are often thought of as forest animals, Campos-Arceiz says they actually prefer transition zones between primary forest and savannah.

Resolving the Conflict

Back in 2016, it was recorded that a total of 1,914 protected wild animals had perished in road accidents over the past five years. Nevertheless, the emerging field of road ecology has galvanised scholars and practitioners eager to address the human-wildlife conflict on our roads.

Authorities have since reportedly installed 236 wildlife crossing road signs at 133 hotspots in Peninsular Malaysia to warn motorists of the dangers of animals crossing the roads. A total of 37 transverse bar sets and 24 units of solar amber light have also been installed at eight locations along the Central Forest Spine. Viaducts for wildlife crossing were also built at three wildlife corridor locations, in Sungai Deka, Terengganu, Sungai Yu, Pahang and Gerik, Perak, to address the possible conflict.

“More viaducts need to be built. One single viaduct in Gerik won’t serve the whole road and landscape,” points out Campos-Arceiz. However, he says that viaducts alone cannot help mitigate the problem, stating that other measures need to be implemented in tandem with the building of walkways for animals.

“Establishing and enforcing restrictive speed limits is one way,” he suggests, stressing that drivers must understand that certain roads are wildlife-sensitive areas and high-speed driving can lead to many roadkills and prevent animals from freely crossing the road. “Enforcement can be facilitated with road bumps and speed traps, and improved illumination of sensitive areas so people can’t miss elephants crossing the road,” he advises.

He also advocates for no further expansions on the road in the future, saying: “Expansion — unless wildlife connectivity is secured — would have a terrible impact on this valuable ecosystem.”

Mourning the Loss

The death of the elephant calf is a setback as far as Campos-Arceiz is concerned. “It was a very sad accident. Elephants are extremely intelligent and sentient animals; their sense of family and individual relationships is not very different from those of humans. So you can imagine the pain of the baby’s family,” he says wistfully.

From a conservation point of view, he says that the death of any elephant is bad news for the population. Compared with other animals, elephants have a biology that is based on very low mortality rates. Elephants breed very slowly (gestation alone takes 22 months!) and because they do not have natural predators, most elephants are expected to survive to reproductive age. “For this family, however, the death of a calf is a tragedy and they will take years to recover,” he surmises.

Nevertheless, he’s mindful that it was an accident. After all, nobody crashes into an elephant intentionally (“It would be suicidal!”). “I’m glad that the driver and passengers (if any) were unhurt. However, we must look at the situation and learn from it,” he says. By learning from it, Campos-Arceiz proposes more awareness campaigns to change people’s behaviour towards wildlife and conservation.

“In the case of roads like the Gerik-Jeli highway, more viaducts need to be built to better serve the wildlife population while members of the public must understand they’re crossing wonderful wildlife habitat and as such, need to take extra precaution in case of unexpected wildlife on the road,” he says before concluding: “In a larger sense, these extraordinary animals and our precious heritage as a whole are everybody’s responsibility.”