By Cassandra Albanus, 9 February 2017
Elephants have long roamed the land we live on – before tall buildings decorated our sky, before the Internet and memes, and before a lot of our land was converted into oil palm plantations. Development is happening at a rapid rate, so how do we, as humans, protect these sensitive and highly intelligent creatures? How can we live together in harmony?
In Telupid, a small district located in the heart of Sabah, elephants are called, out of respect, “Aki” (grandfather) and “Odu” (grandmother). They are referred to as the “Elders” when they are discussed, as if they were people and members of the community, rather than wild animals.
When a group of Forever Sabah coordinators met with the Telupid communities from Kg Liningkung and Kg Gambaron back in July 2016, they told us heartbreaking stories of elephants looking for food near their homes. This caused quite a stir among the people who live there as crops and properties were damaged.
Eulramio Aguinaldo, a villager from Kg Liningkung shared his story of the Elders passing by his house last year, leaving a dent in his car. Instead of feeling angry, Eulramio expressed sympathy and compassion because he felt like the Elders were sending him a message – “we have no choice but to come here and look for food. We have nothing much left in the forest.”
Kg Gambaron, a neighbouring village, was also visited by the Elders in search of food. One of the villagers told us that in 2015, there was an incident in which a calf used its trunk to push a lady. Sadly, the story was not told as it was in the news, saying she was stepped on instead. This gave the elephants a bad reputation and caused unnecessary unrest.
McWesley Widin of Kg Liningkung told us of his experience communicating with two Elders when they came to his village for 3 weeks in May 2016. He was scared so he made his own version of an instrument to produce loud sounds. Despite having a tool to scare the Elders away, he was instead moved to communicate with them in a respectful way.
He mustered up his courage and spoke to them directly when they were 10-20 meters away from him. He said, “Nek, jangan sudah kacau ini sawit sebab ini saja yang kami ada,” which translates to “Odu, please stop disturbing our oil palm because this is the only one we have.”
To his astonishment, one of the small elephants let go of the young oil palm shoot and they moved to another place. He had two other encounters where he communicated respectfully with the Elephants and were understood by the Elders causing them to move to a different place. This protected his fields until they were captured to be translocated.
In July 2016, Forever Sabah, various NGOs including The Forest Trust (TFT), WWF Malaysia, Danau Girang Field Center (DGFC), HUTAN and PACOS Trust, and communities from Kg Liningkung, Kg Bauto, Kg Gambaron and Kg Ulu Muanad, gathered in a hall in Kg Gambaron to better understand the background of the issue and the relationship between elephants and people.
After listening to comments made by the villagers – some were filled with worry, anger and hate – there were some who strongly voiced their opinion about finding a way to live in harmony with the Elders. They wanted to know more about how to communicate with them and be their protectors. Some of them even think that one of the causes of migration is the multiple land openings that has been happening.
This process lead to more gatherings and discussions to come up with a proposal for an integrated plan that includes four core components:
- Community Elephant Ranger Team (CERT)
- Identify Ele-Zone to secure Optimal Habitat for Elephants Outside Conflict Area and Facilitate Movement through the Landscape
- Strategic Electric Fencing (to ensure protection of key urban/village areas)
- Research Capacity/Function (program establishment in Telupid)
The integrated plan will be developed and implemented through a collaboration comprising of the three villages – Kg Bauto, Kg Gambaron and Kg Liningkung – with technical support from the research organizations and NGOs, in consultation with Sabah Forestry Department and Sabah Wildlife Department, under the auspices of the Telupid District Office and facilitated by Forever Sabah.
Forever Sabah will play a lead role in establishing a budget and raising the financial resources necessary for this process.