Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Fight to protect most vulnerable elephants in Sabah

KOTA KINABALU: The Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre is one of Sabah’s best known tourist attractions and since 2013, it has been the Wildlife Rescue Unit’s (WRU) base in eastern Sabah.

“But in recent times, Sepilok has become home to another makeshift family, one the tourists are largely unaware of even as they are startled by their occasional bellows and hoots — baby elephants, a small clan, intelligent, fast-developing toddlers, normally shy behind their larger, more intimidating mothers and aunts, but these elephants’ matriarch is smaller though equally ferocious when it comes to her babies,” WRU vet Dr Laura Benedict said.

These baby elephants are orphans, and hidden in the quiet, peaceful depths of the Sepilok’s enclosure, on the fringes of the Bornean jungle, Dr Laura and WRU are all the family they have.

“It all started in February 2014,” Laura said.

“We rescued two baby elephants from two different areas, Sg Lokan and Sukau Kinabatangan. Like it or not, we have to find a space to keep these elephants; it’s not their fault they are orphaned.”

In recent years, elephant-orphan situations have become disturbingly commonplace.

The advancement of oil palm plantations and human settlements have fragmented and massively depleted the territories of all Borneo’s wild inhabitants.

Unlike most animals, however, habitat encroachment rarely stops an elephant getting where it wants to go. Their sheer size, voracious appetites, dexterous trunks and tough skin, make palm trees simply another food source, that is, until they find themselves stuck in a man-made maze of paths and fences, or face-to-face with an angry, frightened farmer.

When a herd of elephants becomes trapped, their lives are in the hands of the people living there. Elephants are a fully protected species under international conservation laws but this has not stopped appalling acts of violence being committed against trapped elephants.

In some cases, the adults are frightened away. In their rush to escape, the weak/sick babies are separated from the adults. In other rarer cases, entire families of elephants have been killed. Lone infants, terrified and traumatised, are discovered attempting to wake up their dead parents.

As ever great expanses of land have been cleared, the problem has only increased. Since 2013, when a baby elephant called Joe was rescued after his whole family was poisoned, the WRU set about taking in orphaned baby elephants at the Sepilok centre, trying to offer them a sense of community, family, and a safe home.