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Malaysian Oil Palm Green Conservation Foundation: Achieving coexistence with wild elephants in Johor (VIDEO)

Malay Mail
Malay Mail

KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 29 — Over the past 30 years, the wild elephant population in Johor has been severely affected by deforestation for agriculture and plantation expansion.

With limited areas for foraging and roaming, elephants invariably cross paths with people, causing human-elephant interactions (HEI).

When palm oil smallholder Hamzah Ahmad first began clearing his plot of land in Sungai Ara, Kota Tinggi, Johor, in 2006, he said there were no wild elephants around.

“After four to five years, they started coming in,” said Hamzah, who has been farming on his own for 18 years.

Another palm oil smallholder, Idris Abu, also based in Sungai Ara, said he has encountered wild elephants many times.

“When you see them, whether in the village or plantation, trust me, you will be afraid of them and want to run,” said Idris, who started his plantation 16 years ago in 2008.

Luckily for Hamzah and Idris, efforts are being made to address their issues and protect the wild elephant population through the Human-Elephant Coexistence (HEC) Project at Sungai Ara in Kota Tinggi, Johor.

A joint collaboration by international NGO Earthworm Foundation (EF) and Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB), the project aims to empower local stakeholders, especially the smallholders, to strive towards achieving coexistence with elephants to complement wildlife conservation, promote community safety and reduce crop damage.

This is to ensure the consistency of palm oil supply in the market, based on three key objectives.

The first objective is to improve the management of HEI with smallholders in Sungai Ara through capacity building and the application of physical barriers.

The second objective will be to connect neighbouring plantations and smallholders to achieve human-elephant coexistence via an integrated management plan.

The third objective will focus on strengthening data collection to evaluate the impact of the human-elephant coexistence strategies for adaptive management.

As Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil-certified smallholders in Sungai Ara, Hamzah, Idris and fellow farmers are the target group for the first objective.

Late last year, the community completed the construction of their own electric fence, alongside trenches around their estate borders. However, some sections require further reinforcement and maintenance.

Hamzah said wild elephants like eating heart of palms, also known as umbut, especially from young palm oil trees.

“When they are in my plantation they won’t go away until they get something to eat,” he said.

Wild elephants are known to rip off trunks of palm oil trees to get to the heart of palms, which is the white coloured core. They even manage to breach the electric fence by knocking down a tree and using it as a “bridge” to get in and out safely.

In 2022, MPOB and EF signed an agreement formalising a partnership to improve the lives of farmers across Malaysia.

Their goal is to save the palm oil plantations while protecting endangered wild elephants, which are protected by the Malaysian Wildlife Protection Act 1972 (No. 76 of 1972).

“We work with industries around the world and try to help them solve social and environmental issues,” said Khalis Afnan, project leader of Earthworm Foundation’s forest and environment programme.

“Our goal is to help and provide training to increase the resilience of small holders to manage the human-elephant existence at their plantations,” said Khalis.

In addition to electric fencing and trenches, MPOGCF and EF worked with a company to produce an early warning system.

The system was first tested along 17kms of the Sungai Ara border, a stretch known for its high frequency of elephant sightings.

With the system in place, elephants, which usually enter a farm by breaking the electric fence, will trigger the alarm and send out an alert via text on the phone, prompting a coordinated response.

“From the alert, we can tell which fence is breached and action teams can then dispatch their drones,” said Khalis.

“We hope that with sustainable human-elephant interaction management we can achieve a harmonious, human elephant coexistence.”

Malaysian Palm Oil Board director-general Ahmad Parveez, said that the Sungai Ara project is one of MPOGCF’s success stories as it has proven to be effective so far.

MPOGCF has allocated RM180,700 for the project, which will be channelled directly to the communities of Sungai Ara.

It is confident that such conservation efforts will help the country protect its biodiversity and the sustainability of the Malaysian palm oil industry in the global market.

“We want to help resolve this conflict between animals and humans, and MPOGCF’s role in channelling the funds will aid the cause,” he said, adding that he hoped other communities will be inspired to adopt similar practices.

MPOGCF, EF and MPOB are working together to improve the management of human-elephant interactions with independent and organised smallholders managed by Felcra at Sungai Ara in Kota Tinggi, Johor. — Picture courtesy of MPOGCF
MPOGCF, EF and MPOB are working together to improve the management of human-elephant interactions with independent and organised smallholders managed by Felcra at Sungai Ara in Kota Tinggi, Johor. — Picture courtesy of MPOGCF

MPOGCF, EF and MPOB are working together to improve the management of human-elephant interactions with independent and organised smallholders managed by Felcra at Sungai Ara in Kota Tinggi, Johor. — Picture courtesy of MPOGCF

HEI management strategies often involve multiple stakeholders, which is why the scope of the second objective extends beyond Sungai Ara smallholders to neighbouring plantations.

Under the project, stakeholder consultation sessions and workshops that focus on safety and patrolling are held. A local HEC committee has also been formed.

Data on HEI is essential to help monitor the effectiveness of the human-elephant coexistence strategies.

A centralised database of HEI and elephant signs will also assist in identifying hotspots and movement trends.

This data is valuable input for developing long-term solutions involving land-use planning, zoning and gazette-identified areas for elephant corridors.

“Now that we have electrical fencing and trench to deter the elephants, I hope they won’t be able to enter our village or plantation anymore,” said Idris.

“Not many people know this but it’s hard to spot an elephant while patrolling the area,” said Hamzah.

“With the special equipment we have now like electric fences and drones, they’re easier to detect and there are now less elephants entering the plantation.

“Most importantly, the people who live here are safe and worry less about the elephants.”

For more information, visit www.mpogcf.org.

Ends.