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It’s high noon in the jungle.
Around you, an endless sea of brown and green. Above you, endless blue sky, punctured only by the sun.
There are supposed to be others; black-shirted Wildlife Rescue Unit (WRU) rangers, quietly following a line of enormous footprints.
The big bull elephant you’ve been sent to find is elusive and it has already taken much longer than planned to track him down.
This is familiar territory for the rangers of the Wildlife Rescue Unit. “The most difficult part for me as a ranger is the topography of the area where we working in,” said Hasni Kounging.
His colleague, Marcelleno Anik, elaborated: “The surrounding environment, especially topography is very important.
“For example mangrove, swamp, hilly grounds and plantation with very young palm trees.
Rescuing elephant in these area are very tricky.”
But now, the footprints are gone. The rangers are nowhere to be seen. You are miles from the nearest habitation, in a part of Borneo with which you have no familiarity, and you are lost.
This is the situation Aaron Gekoski found himself in, days into his first proper mission with the WRU; plunged into the field as a trainee ranger with Sabah’s Wildlife Rescue Unit.
“We received a call that an elephant had to be relocated from a plantation near Tawau,” Gekoski told me from the field.
“The other rangers and I headed straight there and begun what became a long and gruelling rescue operation”.
The story is typical of the human-elephant conflict that is increasingly commonplace in Sabah.
Hasni tells me “One must be efficient in evaluating the surrounding environment as this will help us in preparing stuff and ourselves for the operation”.
This means more than simply evaluation the terrain. Rangers, Anik said, “must be open minded and willing to accept other’s opinion. We have to be aware of the current conflicts that are happening and know how to communicate with people”.
Gekoski illustrated the scale of the problem to me. “Malaysian Borneo has a mere fraction of the forest coverage that it used to,” he said.
“As a result, elephants are now regularly found wandering nearby areas used by humans, and can cause a lot of destruction in a short space of time. This has put them in the firing line of villagers and workers, with elephants being shot and poisoned. It’s therefore critical that the WRU relocates them back into the jungle out of harm’s way.”
Elephant relocation is the single largest, most expensive and resource-intensive task that the WRU undertakes.
“The hardest part is the capture, transferring the animal into translocation crate up until the release,” said ranger Donysius Thomas
“We always need to think about the safety not only myself but the whole team.”
These animals are very smart,” Gekoski reminds me; “as soon as it caught sight of us it would run into a small stretch of jungle. It was also quite large, so took a number of darts, over a number of days, to bring it to a standstill.”
It was midway through this process that Gekoski and Dr Pakee became separated from the rangers.
Lost in the Jungle Gekoski’s boyish face hardened as he recalls that day. “We were there for probably 10 hours and had no food or water left.
“When we finally found our way out, we were confronted with endless swathes of plantation and not a person in sight! Thankfully, we were eventually found by Hasni, one of the other rangers who came and bailed us out”.
Hasni continues the story: “We were instructed by Dr Pakee to go ahead and pursue the animal and dart if the opportunity arrived. We were of course worried for them but we knew our main priority was rescuing the animal”. Dr Pakee knows full well the value of his colleagues. “We rely on WRU rangers’ skill in following the tracks left by the elephants. It is very dangerous and each operation is different depending on the size of the herd, attitude of the animal and topography of the area”.
Anik agreed: “Rangers and vet always depend on each other as a team in any operation”.
In the face of failure, it was down to the rangers to rescue the mission.
The next day, the team set out again. This time, Gekoski and Dr Pakee stayed close to the rangers; this time, they managed to dart the elephant and track it. The previous day’s chase had taken its toll on the creature; finally, the team brought it to a river, and a standstill.
“It was an amazing feeling,” Gekoski recalled. “We had to wade through a river to get there and we confronted with a grumbling, dozy elephant. We managed to rope its leg to some trees to stop it escaping…but not without it charging us one final time!” However, the job of relocating the elephant had only just begun.
Thomas explains: “It is a very dangerous process as we wait for the elephant to recover from the sedation.
The whole process of getting the rescued elephant into the lorry happens when the wild elephant is fully awake and aware.
“We use strong machinery to produce a strong pulling force that guides the elephant to walk into the transport cage. Things can go wrong in any minute and this requires good coordination and communication of the rangers and the vets. Everyone has a part to play.”
The truck carries a specially designed cage that enables the WRU to safely transport the elephant to a carefully selected nature reserve.
“The relocation site is selected by the wildlife district officers,” Dr Pakee said.
“We consider the existing elephant population in the area, location of forest reserve with surrounding human development, size of the forest re-serve and previous success with the site”.
Has the experience dented his confidence going forward? Judging from his smile, the opposite seems to be true.
“I have huge amounts of respect for the WRU” Gekoski grins. “They do a fantastic job, often in the face of extremely stressful and difficult circumstances. This experience merely rein-forced that belief.”
Unfortunately, no-one can guarantee that this particular bull won’t be seen again.
“The WRU have had to relocate some elephants as many as five times,” Gekoski told me, “as they frequently find their way back into the conflict area.”
Pakee agrees. Relocation successes are, “I would say, 50pc, as relocation is not a long term management for the human-elephant conflict”. What with ever decreasing habitats, there are fewer and fewer sites to choose from.
Anik has hope for the future. “I hope big players in the industry will find a way to give way to elephants in their plantation” – perhaps through the use of rain-forest corridors.
“We also should stop clearing forest so elephant and other wild-life will have place to live and together we protect our environment. It will take a joint effort from major industries and ordinary people to make change hap-pen.”
“To the people out there,” Hasni pleaded, “please appreciate our precious treasure.
Appreciate and protect our forest and its content”.
The Wildlife Rescue Unit (WRU) was created in 2010 in response to an urgent need to address human-wildlife conflicts and conservation issues in Sabah. The WRU is the brainchild of the then Director of the Sabah Wildlife Department, Dr. Datuk Laurentius Ambu, and the Assistant Director, wildlife veterinarian Dr Sen Nathan.
Presently, the unit is fully sponsored by the Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC).
Currently the unit is headed by its acting manager Dr Diana Ramirez; with 23 staff, the WRU has the responsibility to assist the wildlife department in: human wildlife conflict issues, animal rescue and translocations, enforcement, public awareness and other duties.
SZtv is the original productions from Scubazoo, based in Kota Kinabalu.
For over 20 years, Scubazoo has been making world-class wildlife documentaries about Sabah, its inhabitants and its uniquely luscious landscapes – above and below the water!
In series two of Borneo Wildlife Warriors, we rejoin presenter Aaron “Bertie” Gekoski as he continues his journey into the heart of wildlife conservation in Borneo, training to become a ranger with the Wildlife Rescue Unit.
In their latest episode, Bertie comes back from the brink of disaster to help capture and relocate the big bull elephant. This six-part series reaches its climax in the coming weeks with new episodes released every Wednesday on SZtv’s website, YouTube and Facebook.
All episodes have Bahasa Malaysia subtitles and will also be aired on Daily Express and Malay Mail.
For more information, check out Borneo Wildlife Warriors on SZtv.