Borneo's Pygmy Elephants
It was hot and extremely humid that day. Sudirman and Fendy were sitting patiently under the sun, waiting for the elephants to emerge from the tiny, pocketed forest of Lower Kinabatangan to drink and perhaps bathe in the Kinabatangan river. With almost eight years of experience following and observing these elephants, Sudirman and Fendy could now confidently predict the pattern of elephant activities.
Photo Courtesy: Danau Girang Field Centre.
The Lower Kinabatangan is Sabah’s longest river and home to 250 Bornean elephants that roam from upriver Batu Puteh to downriver Abai. The Lower Kinabatangan was classified as a wildlife sanctuary in 2005 and is regarded as an ‘ecotourism hotspot’. It draws visitors from all over the world who come to see a diverse range of wildlife, especially Borneo’s endemic species such as the proboscis monkey, the endangered orangutan and Bornean elephants. If the visitors are lucky, they might also observe crocodiles, wild cats, otters, wild pigs and countless beautiful birds such as hornbills and the Oriental Darter. It is estimated that 85 per cent of the Kinabatangan floodplain has been converted from forest to agriculture since the 1980s and on account of this, elephants are being contained within decreasing ranges. This situation, though not healthy for the elephants, has given more opportunities for tourists to view them, often along the river.
Back to the elephants
Putut and two other elephants were now in the river. She splashed water into the air and occasionally just dived freely into the water. From time to time, she lifted her trunk to assess her surroundings, before returning to enjoy the water. Jelita and 10 other elephants were grazing on the elephant grass on the banks. Sometimes, Perak, Jelita’s four-year-old daughter suckled her mother’s milk before feeding on the grass again. Sudirman and Fendy used this opportunity to try to identify more elephants and record their social behaviour. It was such a wonderful moment to see the elephants behaving naturally without any disturbance. The juvenile males wrestled trunks, pushed heads and pulled tails, ways of exchanging skills and knowledge before they ventured out on their own as adults. A calf rolled on the ground, covering its body with mud as protection against insect bites and heat. Later, Sejati, a sub-adult male and Bibi and Jasmin, both adult females, joined Putut in the water. It was not long before the tourists arrived. Sudirman and Fendy could hear the sound of the boat engines at a distance. “It is time to start my duty,” Fendy whispered to himself.
The ecotourism activities such as boats cruising along the Kinabatangan river usually start at four in the afternoon. Most tour guides attempt to get their customers as close as possible to the animals. Once the elephants are spotted, boats usually attempt to go closer to the river bank than they should. What is worse, some actually go on shore and enter the wildlife sanctuary, an activity that is strictly prohibited. With the increasing number of tourists and tourism activities in Lower Kinabatangan, it is crucial to quantify the extent to which tourism affects the elephant’s behaviour. So far, we have no official guidelines in place to guide tour operators.
Photo: Michael Reynolds.
Keeping tourism in check
To deal with the problem, the Sabah Wildlife Department (SWD) together with the Danau Girang Field Centre and HUTAN-KOCP established a team known as the ‘River Keeper Unit’ in December 2012. This unit assists SWD in preventing tourist boats from approaching too close to the river bank when elephants are active. They also prevent unauthorised landings on the river bank. The unit also helps collect data for scientific research to establish tourism regulations and guidelines particularly for elephants. The ultimate goal is to establish the first guidelines for wildlife watching in LKWS and to help SWD to develop new regulations under the Wildlife Conservation Enactment and thus strengthen protection.
Putut stretched her ears, sitting in the water quietly, occasionally sniffing the air. When a boat with five people passed, the tourists were excited and kept switching seats to get the best photos. Putut and the other elephants seemed distracted by this. Jelita and Perak stopped feeding. Perak then inserted her trunk in her mother’s mouth, a sign of nervousness and insecurity. Jelita placed her trunk over Perak’s back to reassure her. The elephants had to abandon their activities and retreat to high ground. Some retreated into the forest. Disappointed that the elephants had vanished out of sight, another boat from a well-known lodge stopped at the river bank, and the passengers were about to approach Putut and her herd.
An argument ensued between Sudirman, Fendy and the boatmen and tour guides about the danger of bringing people who are clueless about the consequences of their actions. Their action not only violated the law, but endangered both tourists and elephants. Sometimes the River Keeper Unit is challenged, but they are a determined group that will not give up easily. They take the task of creating sensitivity and awareness among the lodges, homestays and bed and breakfast operators seriously. When asked why they choose to be a part of River Keepers, Sudirman and Fendy responded: “We must make sure that tourism is sustainable so that people can enjoy watching these beautiful animals, while allowing the elephants to behave naturally. We also help keep the sanctuary free from encroachments, illegal logging and hunting. We want the next generation to continue experiencing our wildlife.”
The abundance of these elephants must be maintained if tourism is to continue here. Human-elephant conflicts will cause a decline in their population if effective preventive measures are not taken by all those who have a stake in the area. Without doubt a greater understanding of the natural behaviour of elephants and their response to tourists will help improve management and offer high quality visitor experiences.
Photo: Baharudin Resake.
Danau Girang Field Centre
Set up in July 2008 in Lot 6 of the Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary, a protected wetland under the jurisdiction of the Sabah Wildlife Department, the Danau Girang Field Centre provides opportunities for biodiversity research and training and field courses in tropical biodiversity management.
Their work focusses on understanding biological responses of wildlife species to rainforest fragmentation and palm oil monoculture. They are also working to find out about what dispersal opportunities exist for these species within the fragmented landscape of the Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary, and how dispersal corridors might be protected, enhanced and restored. They currently work on elephants, proboscis monkeys, tarsiers and slow loris, large (sun bear, clouded leopard) and small (leopard cat, marbled cat, flat-headed cat, civet) carnivores, crocodiles, monitor lizards, fish and frogs.
For more information visit: www.facebook.com/pages/Danau-Girang-Field-Centre/147476775319983. Or write to: The Danau Girang Field Centre, c/o Sabah Wildlife Department, Wisma Muis, 88100 Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia.
Authors: Nurzhafarina Othman, Mohammed Syafendy Yajit, Sudirman Sawang and Benoit Goossens
First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia Vol. XXXIII No. 5, October 2013.