Co-existing with Elephants. The Sabah Softwoods Experience

Human-elephant conflicts have been widely reported in Sabah this year. An estimated two thousand Pygmy elephants roam the landscape in Sabah and have been known to wander into areas with human activities which is when human-elephants conflicts arise.

 Mitigation of these conflicts have used different approaches including translocations and fencing. In the Tawau area in Sabah, a company is taking a new approach that is leading to a relatively peaceful co-existence of the elephants and its plantations.

Sabah Softwoods manages over 60,000 hectares of oil palm and timber plantations in the Tawau area. Established in 1973 on some existing coffee and cocoa plantations, its core businesses today are in timber, woodchip production and palm oil milling.

Its early experience with the elephant herds in the area started in 2004. Costly measures including fencing off its estates with electrical wires proved to be ineffective as the elephants continued to wander into its estates when food sources in their natural habitats ran dry. The company decided to look for lasting solutions in 2012 and conducted a study to find out the full scope of what had to be done to change the human-elephant conflicts to human elephant encounters and even then, work to reduce those encounters.

A year-long study was done to track the elephants movements in 2012. Surveys of the area were also conducted in 2013 to determine what areas would be best to connect the forest reserves of Ulu Kalumpang and Ulu Segama. The GPS collaring of a few elephants helped to confirm the best areas to create an elephant pathway and in 2015, the work began in earnest to create a corridor linking the elephants natural habitats in the two forest reserves of Ulu Segama and Ulu Kalumpang.

Giving Back to The Environment

Accompanied by Dr Sen Nathan and rangers from the Sabah Wildlife Department, I visited the Brumas estate to have a look at the efforts being put into place to reduce human-elephant conflicts.

The elephant corridor was remarkable. Stretching 14 kilometres long with a width that varied from 400 m to 800 m, it provided the shortest distance within the plantations borders to connect Ulu Kalumpang forest reserve and Ulu Segama forest reserve. Restoration plantings since 2015 have seen the planting of endemic trees including fruiting ones as a future source of food for the elephants. Further efforts to attract the elephants to use the corridor came in the way of a man-made wading pond and salt licks.

At the time of our visit, a total of 7000 hectares or 12% of the company’s estate have been designated as conservation areas. Sabah Softwoods estimated that the economic value of the excised areas along with the costs of creating the wildlife corridor to be over $8 million USD. This is costly compared to the recurring costs from the loss of crops but according to the Head of Sustainability at Sabah Softwoods,  Ram Nathan, was something they had to do as part of the corporate mission to being a sustainable company.

The company’s commitment to sustainable operations can be seen in the certification of its timber operations by the Forest Stewardship Council ( FSC ) in 2007. Sabah Softwoods was one of the earliest companies to achieve certification by the FSC. It was also one of the earliest companies to obtain certification for its palm oil operations under the Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) scheme in 2016.

As the laborious work continues in creating the elephant corridor, the most surprising finding from the Sabah Softwoods experience with elephants is to let them roam freely through the plantations. According to Ram Nathan, the incidences of conflicts with elephants are lower when they’re allowed to roam. The tree plantations with grasses are a known feeding ground for elephants but what really attracts them is when older oil palm areas are replanted. What happens in replanting is the chipped trunks of the old oil palm trees reveals a tender core which the elephants favor as a food.

The field experience from Sabah Wildlife Department has shown that elephants can smell the scent of the chipped tender cores from long distances. Entire herds have been known to wonder off their usual food paths in order to gorge on these tender cores when an area is being processed for replanting. Monitoring of their activities by Sabah Softwoods has shown that the herds tend to hang around the area for a few months until that food source runs out. This could affect the replanting schedule but as Ram Nathan advised:

“Let them enjoy this feast and be patient. No one can rush an elephant anyway.”

These are some great lessons from the Sabah Softwoods experience with elephants that are bound to be useful to other plantations. Even as the work continues on building the elephant corridor as a medium term measure to reduce human-elephant encounters, the company’s long term vision for reducing these encounters is to work with other stakeholders in the wider landscape to create a lasting solution for both humans and elephants.

The creation of a connected landscape for elephants in the Tawau area should be a relatively easy task under the MSPO standards for High Conservation Value areas. With its implementation across Sabah state in 2019, we hope that more stories of outstanding conservation initiatives like that of Sabah Softwoods will surface. In the meantime, we hope you have enjoyed reading this particular story from the field on elephant co-existence with plantations.