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Human-elephant relations in Peninsular Malaysia

Authors:
  • Resource Stewardship Consultants Sdn Bhd

Abstract

In the Malay Peninsula, people have lived alongside Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) for around 55,000 years but our expansion now endangers the species. With the aim of gaining knowledge on how to we can live together in future, I reviewed the ecology, history, and management of human-elephant relations in the Peninsula. I found that indigenous people (Orang Asli) occupied many of the same landscapes as elephants and, despite a degree of ecological overlap, managed to enjoy a convivial coexistence by following the pathways elephants created through the rainforest, and by subsisting off wild yams. Around 6500 years ago, a swidden-farming culture arrived and crop-raiding elephants were killed and occasionally eaten. Around 2500 years ago, new settlers arrived and elephants came to be sought for ivory, to be captured, tamed, and even exported. Aspects of the traditional forager and swiddener cultures remain in Belum-Temengor, a priority elephant conservation site in the north of the Peninsula. Here, I surveyed 37 villages to examine beliefs, attitudes, and behaviour towards elephants. I found that tough elephants were the main source of human-wildlife conflict, most respondents considered the animals to be worthy of respect. Thre were some indications that younger respondents tended to have less tolerant attitudes. To get a clearer idea on how to manage elephants in this landscape, I mapped the villages and monitored the movement of four elephants using satellite collars. I found that governement-sponsored rubber plantations, exposed villagers to elephant raids despite the construction of electric fences. Based on these findings I propose a five-phase strategic intervention approach to elephant conservation: (i) land-use planning; (ii) barriers to protect people (including electric fences); (iii) compensation for losses; (iv) education and engagements; and (v) removal (killing or capture).
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... In the Malay Peninsula, Lye [52] notes that the Batek people preferred living in standard lowland forest (h@p l@y) as it was the easiest kind of forest to travel in "simply because elephants also use h@p l@y and they open up passageways that people can then use". Indeed, we found that most groups of Orang Asli appreciate the fact that elephants keep paths through the forest accessible [64]. ...
... In Belum-Temengor, a recent study by Hii [86] placed camera traps next to a salt lick where human visits peaked from 10:00 to 12:00 and found that elephants were most active from 20:00 to 06:00. Similarly, using GPS telemetry from 17 collared elephants we found that 81% of the elephant road crossing in this landscape happened at night [59] and that the activity of a crop-raiding elephant peaked between 21:00 and 23:00 when she was moving near human settlements [64]. This is consistent with findings from Asian elephants in Sri Lanka [87] and Assam [88], where crop-raiding occurred almost exclusively at night. ...
... However, in the Peninsula, the hives of bees such as A. dorsata are usually out of reach of elephants, and even the lower-nesting A. florea are probably not attractive due to the aggressive stinging behaviour of Apis bees, which King et al. [124] have shown to be a deterrent of elephants in Sri Lanka. By comparison, there is a genus of stingless bees (Trigona spp.) that are found in crevices that are often low enough for elephants to reach, and we found that in Belum-Temengor the elephants attack the hives and eat the honey of these stingless bees when the opportunity arises [64]. ...
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Understanding the relationship between humans and elephants is of particular interest for reducing conflict and encouraging coexistence. This paper reviews the ecological relationship between humans and Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) in the rainforests of the Malay Peninsula, examining the extent of differentiation of spatio-temporal and trophic niches. We highlight the strategies that people and elephants use to partition an overlapping fundamental niche. When elephants are present, forest-dwelling people often build above-the-ground shelters; and when people are present, elephants avoid open areas during the day. People are able to access several foods that are out of reach of elephants or inedible; for example, people use water to leach poisons from tubers of wild yams, use blowpipes to kill arboreal game, and climb trees to access honey. We discuss how the transition to agriculture affected the human–elephant relationship by increasing the potential for competition. We conclude that the traditional foraging cultures of the Malay Peninsula are compatible with wildlife conservation.
... The ongoing transition of these communities into cash-based economies increases their risk of severe conflict with elephants (e.g. Lim, 2020). The exposure and vulnerability to HEC of smallholder communities tend to be very heterogenous, making them difficult to engage and coordinate. ...
... Our impression from interactions in the past 10 years is that HEC tolerance is high but declining among Orang Asli communities, rapidly increasing among commercial plantations and generally low among the smallholder communities (e.g. Tan et al. 2020, Lim, 2020. ...
... After more than six decades of independence, Malaysia has managed to reduce her poverty level to 3.8% in 2009 (Hatta and Ali, 2013), however many indigenous communities are still living below National hardcore poverty line (Saifullah et al., 2021). These communities often face crop depredation and other types of conflict with wild elephants, although most are still influence by their ancestor's culture that imbued respect for the elephants (Lim, 2018). By applying systems thinking on the problem tree, which helps to visualize the intricacies of interrelationships between factor (Mahajan et al., 2019), we recognized that with reduction of the poverty rate and as the larger society becomes more affluent (with an increase in profit), there are opportunities to shift the society's focus on human-centric development toward balanced development that supports wildlife conservation (Guérin et al., 2017;Tan et al., 2020) or toward a more eco-centric mindset (Taylor et al., 2020). ...
... Increase in tolerance and willingness to live alongside elephants Number or % of people willing to live alongside elephants increased. Based on comparison of baseline data and after intervention data.Ponnusamy et al., 2016;Tan, 2016;Lim, 2018;Tan et al., 2020.Smallholders1. Increase in wildlife-friendly practices on estates (i.e., setting aside movement corridors, removing snares, and stopping poachers)Number or % of people calling for translocation as HEC mitigation method reduces. ...
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... There are no easy solutions to stop elephants from raiding crops once agriculture becomes the principal land use in the vicinity of elephant reserves (Santiapillai and Ramono, 1993). The five strategic phases of intervention suggested for mitigating human elephant conflicts (Lim, 2018) are: Overall, we found that the plantation industry did not develop species-specific policies. ...
Thesis
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The research provides a scientific synthesis of information on HEC encountered by SDPB Malaysia operations for the duration of 2011-2018. This research suggested that elephant depredation mostly occurs when the oil palm trees are below five years old, and the most damage takes place when the tree is one year old. The spatial distribution of highest HEC intensity and damage frequency occurred mostly in the area of entry point at estate borders and some were reduced with the application of mitigation. The temporal pattern of HEC in SDPB suggested that some estates showed a clear reduction in HEC when comparing HEC incidents before and after the year of electric fencing is in place but not for all. This concurred that an electric fence is useful when applied in the right conditions, but it may not be a solution for all HEC. Further research and observation are needed at respective estates of SDPB. The HEC pattern is not correlated with monthly rainfall. The total economic loss for the 8 years duration is RM24 million.
... For both these groups of Orang Asli, elephants are sentient beings and should only be killed when absolutely necessary (Lim 2019). Some Temiar do occasionally kill and eat crop-raiding elephants, but many communities have taboos related to hunting elephants and eating elephant meat (Bolton 1972). ...
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This paper highlights the recent history of human-elephant relationships in Belum-Temengor, a priority site for elephant conservation and also home to indigenous people. In this site, the conservation of elephants often comes into conflict with measures taken to develop the land for the benefit of the people such as the creation of a hydroelectric dam, building a highway, and clearing the forest to plant rubber trees. We examine the history of elephants, the history of the people, and the history of the relationship between humans and elephants in this site. We find commonalities between the ways in which the authorities have treated both elephants and people, with paternalistic attempts at translocation and resettlement resulting in unintended consequences on both elephant conservation and economic development. We highlight conflicting government policies that set the stage for unprecedented levels of conflict between Orang Asli and elephants as human population densities increase and land use shifts towards permanent agriculture (particularly rubber plantations).
Chapter
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This book was funded by the EU 7th Framework Programme (7FP), TropicMicroArch 623293 Project (http://cordis.europa.eu/project/rcn/187754_en.html). The book will be Open Access, thanks to FP7 post-grant Open Access (https://www.openaire.eu/postgrantoapilot).