Elephants in ERL are threatened due to multiple factors, including the loss of core forest habitat and essential lowland areas which provide food resources. Human development has displaced elephants and created conflict in agricultural areas, and caused deaths of elephants and people through road collisions. Even within forested areas elephants are subject to hunting and the risk of death or injury from traps and snares.
Image 1. Elephant signs observed via surveys or camera traps in the landscape. Elephants roam outside of forested areas, especially along the riparian and plantation areas in search of food. This unfortunately, very often leads to conflict with local and agricultural communities.
There is an urgent need to incorporate the requirements of elephants into landscape management because a published study has shown that every additional deliberate or accidental elephant death drives the small (likely <120 elephants) ERL population towards extinction.
WCS Malaysia is working at the landscape level to determine how elephants are using National Park areas, and the adjacent permanent reserved forest. In addition, we are also looking at better understanding their utilisation of plantations and agricultural areas between forest blocks with the aim of using science-based assessments in providing recommendations to reduce conflict incidences.
The other important part of our work is the collaboration with stakeholders at two levels: (1) Orang Asli [indigenous] villagers that commonly occupy areas which elephants use as corridors and who are experiencing crop damage and other disturbances; and (2) managers and workers in oil palm and rubber plantations which comprise the most extensive land-use in Johor and Pahang. Elephants may not distinguish between these plantations and natural forest, and consequently tend to use these areas as a part of their normal range and food supply.
Image 2. A herd of elephants caught by a camera trap.
Though we have yet to track elephant movement with satellite-tracking collars, we communicate directly with plantation managers and workers to monitor plantation boundaries, in order to determine how elephants use non-forest areas. This increases the quality of data we obtain and provides an opportunity to circulate information about elephants among those who regularly encounter them, and also share techniques on mitigation methods.
Orang Asli farmers have benefited from our training and supply of materials for installing siren fences. This technique allows the farmers to sleep at night when elephants are not in the vicinity and alerts them when elephants enter their fields. Several villages have now requested training in installing these early-warning fences for their crop-fields and villages. We have identified three Orang Asli farmers who are skilled at making these fences and are willing to act as instructors for the farmers who have requested assistance.
Where are the elephants?
Elephants utilise almost all of the ERL forested area, but are also widespread across the human-dominated landscape. The reason for this is that an elephant’s huge need for food (up to 200kg per day) is typically satisfied by foraging at forest edges and at river margins in lowland areas. These areas have long been converted into plantations and other agriculture, but the elephants continue to roam there. WCS field teams have found evidence of elephants mostly along forest–plantation boundaries and riverine areas bordering plantations. When crop-raiding, elephants typically do not travel further than 1–3km from the forest edge (their ‘safe space’), but in the plantations of the Sembrong River area elephants are found >7km from the forest edge - we believe they are either residing in small forest remnants within the area, or travelling from the southern part of the ERL to the northern part, along rivers and through plantations. A long-term solution which allows elephant passage, with reduced conflict, is needed for the Sembrong River area and also between the ERL and the Gunung Arong permanent reserved forest.
Image 3. Plantation boundary inspection with plantation staff and workers.
The Covid-19 pandemic has presented a challenging situation over the past year, and has imposed limitations on how we work. Nevertheless, a significant threat to elephants and other wildlife, which has not declined during the government’s movement restrictions, is illegal hunting activities using traps, snares and firearms. To counter these threats, we continue to support the multi-agency patrolling under the Johor Wildlife Conservation Project and Operasi Bersepadu Khazanah (OBK), which has been successful in combating wildlife and forest crime. In ERL, since May 2019, 40 enforcement operations have resulted in the detection and removal of 165 snares and traps, and the arrest of at least 38 offenders by the authorities.
Image 4. Joint enforcement operations called 'Operasi Bersepadu Khazanah-OBK' involving the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (DWNP), Royal Police Malaysia (RMP), Forestry Department (FD), and Johor National Parks Corporation (JNPC).
Image 5. The OBK team searches and removes snares and traps in the forest.
This project is co-funded by IUCN Save Our Species. The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of Wildlife Conservation Society Malaysia and do not necessarily reflect the views of IUCN. Thank you to IUCN SOS for funding this project.