The villagers of Ulu Muanad, in Beluran, Sabah, are predominantly farmers – first generation smallholders who harvest rubber, rice, fruit, vegetables and palm oil. Sometimes birds and even monkeys would disturb their crops, but these incidents are not as aggravating as the ones they face with another unlikely neighbour: the endangered Borneo Pygmy Elephant (Elephas maximus borneensis).
Pygmy elephants are the world's smallest elephants and they can grow up to 2.5 metres and weigh around 2,000 kgs. But their former range in Sabah has been converted for development and monoculture plantations, and there are now less than 2,000 of these elephants in the state.
With their natural habitat now dominated by oil palm plantations, elephants are increasingly traveling through these areas, and consequently increasing human-elephant conflicts (HEC). Farmers are struggling to protect their livelihoods and property from these animals which often cause damage to crops and eat young palm oil tree stems. Therefore, there needs to be a way for the smallholders to co-exist with elephants in Sabah's oil palm landscape.
Since 2016, Earthworm Foundation, through its smallholder initiative Rurality, has been working to find ways to mitigate the HEC issue - a complex problem that requires a multi-stakeholder and multi-pronged approach for the long-term conservation of the elephants. This includes mitigation strategies that aim to understand human elephant interaction, and to educate the farmers who might come into contact with these animals.
While similar initiatives are already taking place in other HEC zones in Sabah, such efforts are disconnected from the on-going responsible sourcing initiatives of brands. The formation of the HEC mitigation committee in Ulu Muanad involves plantations, mills, smallholders, The Sabah Wildlife Department (SWD) and local conservation groups (Project Seratu Aatai and HUTAN-Kinabatangan Orang Utan Conservation Project). These collaborative partnerships across the board hope to close the gaps by connecting all of these players to solve the HEC issue.
The Ulu Muanad HEC Monitoring Group consists of smallholders who are taking ownership of the situation and are trying to find long-term solutions by getting organised. They use community-based and citizen science approaches including radio collar installation to track elephants and formulate preventive strategies based on the understanding of the biology and behaviour of the animals. Under the supervision of SWD, they will be appointed as Honorary Wildlife Wardens to assist the department in patrolling and enforcement activities.
"We patrol, receive reports and monitor, together with the Wildlife Department, where there are issues of conflict with elephants. Before we didn't know how to overcome elephant issues in this village."
Carrizal Jimior (Boboi), Ulu Muanad farmer and HEC Monitoring Group Volunteer.
For some farmers in Ulu Muanad, they see an opportunity to play an active role in the elephant's conservation. Jennifer Wong Oi Lan works with her husband to harvest palm oil and is aware of the increasing fragmentation of elephant populations and how this affects resource use for both human and non-human communities in this area.
"The locals call the elephants 'Aki' or 'Nenek' (ancestors or grandparent) because before the expansion of oil palm plantations, they roamed these lands. I am angry when they eat or damage our crops, and some farmers event want them dead when this happens. But, I don't agree, we shouldn't kill elephants or any wildlife. When this happens, we need to move these animals to a safer place. At the end of the day, we must learn to live in harmony with them."
Earthworm Foundation invites businesses to support Rurality's ongoing HEC work in Ulu Muanad, (Lower Kinabatangan region) and similar initiatives in other HEC zones in Sabah. The Rurality programme hopes to save elephant lives, scale up these solutions, and reduce economic loss and reputation damages in the palm oil supply chain of Sabah.