Malaysia: Elephant translocation affecting Orang Asli

The elephant in our room
LIM MAY LEE, ELROI YEE, SHANJEEV REDDY, and IAN YEE The Star 15 Mar 16;

BELUM: Since 2010, the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (Perhilitan) has translocated 36 elephants into the state park. According to the orang asli, this is causing an increase in human-elephant conflict (HEC).

The translocation has doubled the elephant population in the area, and the orang asli are complaining that the elephants are encroaching on their land, destroying their homes, eating their crops and forcing them to flee their settlements.

The Star’s R.AGE video team witnessed the destruction first-hand while filming a documentary on the issue.

An elephant wandered into the village the team was staying at, seemingly foraging for food. The men of the village started making loud noises and lighting bonfires to scare off the animals, while the women and children boarded their boats to take refuge in the middle of the river.

The elephant briefly charged at the R.AGE team, only to veer away into the jungle after a few seconds, snapping trees in its wake.

The R.AGE team visited seven villages during the trip, and all told similar stories of HEC.

Another village was forced to completely abandon their homes and flee into the hills in the dead of night, after two elephants started rummaging through their huts for food.

“I woke up and saw the trunk of the elephant inside my house. We immediately jumped out of bed and ran into the jungle.” said Kederi, one of the villagers. His house was nearly torn in two.

Dr Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz, a Spanish elephant conservationist based in Malaysia, is hesitant to blame translocation for HEC, but admits it is not the best solution.

“Translocation can be used in some cases, but it needs to be the last resort,” said Dr Campos-Arceiz.

He added that translocated elephants might get stressed in an unfamiliar environment, causing them to develop an aggressive response to people.

"The elephant is confused, it’s not in its natural environment. Stuff like crops become a much more attractive resource when you are under stress, and you don’t know where the good feeding grounds are," he said.

When approached for comment, Perhilitan recommended the orang asli report any cases of HEC to the department.

“We strongly urge the orang asli to lodge a report at the nearest Perhilitan district office or call us via the care-line or our mySMS service,” said Muhamad Aminuddin Ahmad, the Perhilitan district officer. “If we do not receive a report, we cannot take action.”

However, the Jahai people cannot make these reports as they don’t have telephones, and their villages are three hours away from the nearest town.

Centre for Orang Asli Concerns (COAC) coordinator Dr Colin Nicholas said those in charge weren’t taking enough initiative to help the orang asli.

“Perhilitan is not being proactive enough to find out what’s happening on the ground,” he said.

He added that it costs about RM200-300 for the orang asli to travel to Gerik town and lodge a report. “And even then, no action is taken.”

Universiti Malaya anthropologist Kamal Solhaimi Fadzil, who has conducted extensive research among orang asli communities in the Belum-Temenggor area, suggested a radical solution to the HEC issue.

“They should set up a joint task force, which includes representatives from the community, so one can deal with community issues such as human-animal conflict, while the other deals with issues like poaching and illegal encroachment,” he said.

As for the orang asli, Dr Campos-Arceiz stressed that they should be trained to protect themselves and their crops from the elephants, as there is "no such thing as too many elephants".

To watch the R.AGE documentary on the elephant "attacks" in the Royal Belum State Park: http://rage.com.my/elephant-in-our-room

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