Researchers develop tool to manage conflict with Asian elephants

An innovative tool to help oil palm plantations manage conflict with Asian elephants responsibly and move towards harmonious coexistence is being developed by Sime Darby Plantation (SDP) together with the University of Nottingham Malaysia and other partners.

A joint wild elephant research project between the University of Nottingham Malaysia and the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (PERHILITAN) in Peninsular Malaysia, has been providing capacity building to SDP staff in developing evidence-based approaches to support the plantation’s decision-making and management of conflict.

Elephant movement database

The project known as Management & Ecology of Malaysian Elephants (MEME) started in 2011, has collared 50 wild elephants with GPS-satellite collars to track their movements, producing one of the largest elephant movement databases in this region. Their research has helped provide crucial findings on the negative impact of roads on elephant movement, elucidating that the effect of translocation on a wild elephant’s stress response can last for a year or more, and assessing the potential movement of elephants across forests in the Central Forest Spine landscape in Peninsular Malaysia.

Human-elephant conflict has been identified as one of the major threats to wild Asian elephants throughout its range in thirteen countries, whereby crop depredation by elephants is often of a great concern to plantations and farmers.

MEME’s research found that over the last 40 years, Peninsular Malaysia has lost 68% of elephant range in human-occupied landscape, and in the remaining 32% areas where elephants are living near humans, two-thirds are experiencing conflict. The elephant populations in Malaysia is estimated to be 1200-1500 individuals in Peninsular Malaysia and ~ 2000 individuals in Sabah. As wild elephants have large home-ranges outside of protected forest areas, their long-term survival is interlinked with conserving remaining forest landscape, increasing the ability of the agriculture sectors to manage conflict and the control of illegal poaching.

Ms. Aida Ab. Ghani, a MEME researcher and SDP employee, has been leading the research and development of the policies and Standard Operation Procedures (SOP) for the past two years.

I hope to transform how planters perceive and interact with wild elephants through a landscape approach. If SDP can do it then so can others. I will be working collaboratively on the ground with other significant stakeholders to make this happen.

The tool is being developed to form part of SDP’s Human-Wildlife Resolution approaches under its Responsible Agriculture Charter. The Group Managing Director of Sime Darby Plantation, Mohamad Helmy Othman Basha announced that the SOP is set to be implemented across all SDP estates before the end of 2020.

“In the long run, this undertaking will empower plantations to understand Human Elephant Conflict patterns in their own area and enable adaptive management standards, as elephant behaviour and the nature of the Human Elephant Conflict may differ from one place to another.

Once completed, the standard operating procedure will be made accessible to all relevant industries,” said Helmy who is also the Sime Darby Foundation Governing Council Member.

The Sime Darby Foundation has just committed RM2.85 million to support MEME for the next three years (2020-2022), to develop conflict management approaches that will cater for smallholders. This grant will assist in the development of a science-backed mechanism to increase support for co-existence between humans and the endangered species. This marks an overall contribution of RM8.11 million by the foundation since 2012, towards research and conservation management of wild Asian elephants.

Human-Elephant Conflict (HEC) in Malaysia mainly involves elephants depredating on crops grown by farmers and plantations, causing economic losses to these parties. Last year alone, damages to crops and properties attributed to HEC in Peninsular Malaysia reached RM 14.2 million. The Director-General of PERHILITAN, Dato’ Abdul Kadir bin Abu Hashim said: “The conflict between humans and wildlife is caused by competition for food and space and is one of the biggest threats to wildlife around the world. HEC will cause dissatisfaction among those affected, leading to the pressure to translocate elephants from the area.

“Through our studies on collared elephants, we now know translocation is not a long-term solution. PERHILITAN has been setting up electric fences to help communities but we will need to explore more ways to help farmers to guard, manage HEC and tolerate having elephants in the landscape”.

The HEC is known to be a complex issue and there is no one-size fits all solution. Hence, the first step is to help stakeholders to set aside frustration with crop losses, to manage the conflict, and design local approaches that will help the wild elephants and agriculture communities.

Professor Deborah Hall, UNM’s Vice-Provost for Research and Knowledge Exchange said: “The MEME project represents one of our flagship sustainability programmes, working hand-in-hand with external partners to deliver pioneering research that changes lives.

“Our research enables local authorities and other policymakers to make evidence-based decision in elephant conservation and we are committed to building local capacity in conservation science and practice. We are delighted that MEME received this funding in the year that we are also celebrating 20 years of a thriving global University in Malaysia.”

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