Agricultural development in the Malaysian state of Sabah is leading to increased encounters between humans and elephants. This is why twelve farmers journeyed to Sukau, Sabah on January 8, 2018 to learn more about elephants and share experiences about handling them.
The training was organised by Hutan-Kinabatangan Orangutan Conservation Programme (Hutan-KOCP), Danau Girang Field Centre (DGFC) and us. Situated along the Kinabatangan River, Hutan’s office at the Sabah Wildlife Department Station in Sukau served as the venue over four days.
For several years, villagers from Sukau have been dealing with elephants roaming into their farms. With Hutan’s help, eight farmers there are controlling the issue by forming a voluntary warden unit known as G8.
This gathering was meant to give farmers from Ulu Muanad village the knowledge to handle elephants by forming their own warden group. Since 2015, the Rurality field team has been working to empower farmers in the village, which lies in Beluran district and is a two-hour drive from Sukau.
We also wanted to bring together farmers with similar problems, who were previously disconnected. Each of them shared their experiences. Farmers from Sukau village shared how some elephants inadvertently wandered into and damaged their cemetery areas about 10 years ago.
Inhabitants of Ulu Muanad spoke of more recent damage done to their young oil palm trees, which are a favoured food for elephants. Youth from Litang said that herds of up to 36 elephants stay around their village for three to four months, with some wandering into villagers’ backyards.
Farmers also shared how they have been using noise or smell to deter elephants. A commonly-used tool is the ladum, a home-made noise cannon that uses calcium carbide to produce an explosive sound. Farmers from Ulu Muanad make theirs out of bamboo or tin, while those from Litang said that they use bamboo tied to a bicycle tyre tube.
Human hair is another home-made method being used by a farmer in Ulu Muanad, who heard that elephants can be deterred by the smell of humans. Electrical fencing has also been effective in areas with many elephants, such as Sukau and Abai village. But electric fences are costly, and require proper planning and a collective effort.
You have to understand the elephants’ behaviour and movements. Fences should be installed in areas with less trees, which elephants can push down to damage and get through fences. Without proper planning, fences may even worsen things.
Elephants with moist cheeks and legs are in heat and can be very aggressive, according to Dr. Nurzhafarina Othman, a Borneo elephant expert for Danau Girang Field Centre (DGFC). The DGFC is a research and training centre run by the Sabah Wildlife Department and Cardiff University.
Dr. Farina also taught farmers to identify elephants by their ears, tusk, tails and hair. Identification helps track elephant movement, which the DGFC and Sabah Wildlife Department have been doing through radio collars. Other ways of tracking them are through footprints, faeces and the damage.
After four days of theoretical and practical training, all seven villagers from Ulu Muanad decided to share what they have learnt and the idea of a volunteer warden group with people back home. They also planned to map elephant movement in their area, forming a WhatsApp group called The 7 Team UM.
Eleanor, a farmer from Ulu Muanad, told me she used to feel scared of elephants. Her fear was down to her lack of experiene with them, but having had the benefit of our joint training she feels she knows what to do in the future.