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.
Whilst the orphans are young and susceptible to illnesses, the WRU are keeping a very close eye on them.
Each day, Laura and her colleagues feed, monitor and exercise the babies, but just as important, Laura and the WRU let the babies play. Like all children, these orphans need to grow and learn together, and the best quality of life the WRU can provide is one where the elephants can enjoy growing up at Sepilok.
Watching these babies, which collectively weigh over a ton charging around, falling over, climbing on the orang utan jungle gym, provokes gasps of delight from anyone who sees it.
What does the future hold for these orphans? Even Dr Laura can’t say. Without their herd’s nurturing, or experience of the jungle, their chances of thriving in the wild are greatly diminished, but Dr Laura still has hope that they can lead happy, fulfilled lives.
“I would love to see them going back to the wild, but there are a few criteria that we have to take into consideration before we can decide what their future will be like,” Laura said.
If all goes to plan, Laura hopes there will be a larger elephant care unit for the orphaned elephants incorporated at the Borneo Elephant Sanctuary when it is ready.
“Hopefully we can initiate a rehabilitation program for them, and if at all they need to be in captivity for the rest of their lives, we will have to make sure that they will have their welfare taken care of.”
Not all elephants the WRU takes in are babies. At the Borneo Elephant Sanctuary (BES) a legend of the conservation world is working with some of the most difficult and dangerous animals in Sabah.
In these cases, it is down to Jibius Dausip to take them in at BES, and in doing so, has earned himself the nickname, ‘The Elephant Guru’.
Over 35 years, Jibius has worked more closely than anyone with Borneo’s largest animals.
“Now, my job is to train staff to handle, capture, and translocate wild elephants,” he said.
At BES, Jibius works with adult elephants who are unable to immediately return to the wild. Sometimes, this is because there is no available space; bull elephants in particular need their own territory, and simply releasing adults into the wild can result in animals being forced out of their new home and back into the conflict areas they were first found in.
In other, rarer cases, elephants have been known to injure or even kill humans they encounter. For their safety and for humans around them, it is up to Jibius and the WRU to try and rehabilitate these troubled, displaced elephants.
“The more places that are opened for the plantations, for the road building, the more things there are that disturb them,” said Jibius, adding: “So every time they go to this place, it happens, they go to that place, same happens, so the elephant becomes more and more stressed.”
Of all the flashpoints in Borneo’s human/animal conflict, the challenges WRU deal with are some of the most difficult to resolve.
Who is responsible when an elephant attacks a human? When a baby elephant is orphaned? How to respond to these most charismatic of Borneo’s megafauna when they are more than a beautiful attraction; when they are a crop-destroying pest, or a dangerous wild animal?
These are questions Jibius and Laura have long considered.
“Elephants are such unique and beautiful creatures, and the Bornean elephant can only be found in Borneo.We really need to find a sound solution so that human communities, elephants and industry leaders will be able to co-exist one day,” Laura said.
Neither Sepilok’s elephant orphanage, nor the Borneo Elephant Sanctuary, were the result of long-term conservation plans. They are examples of the WRU’s relentless efforts to adapt to the specific challenges Sabah’s human/animal conflict generates.
Can a middle way be found between the development of Sabahan societies, and the preservation of Sabah itself? The reality of these battles make for difficult reading, and raise deep questions about the future of our natural world, but amidst it all, both Laura and Jibius are positive.
“The best thing for me would be future planning,” Jibius concludes.
WRU (gets) cooperation from a lot of people, the government, the plantations, because the elephant needs a place to stay. No matter how good or effective the work of the WRU is, that place can and should be in the wild.
The brainchild of the then Sabah Wildlife Department director Dr. Datuk Laurentius Ambu (retired December 2014), and the assistant director Dr. Sen Nathan, WRU was created in 2010 in response to an urgent need to address increasing human wildlife conflicts and conservation issues in Sabah.
WRU was set up by the Wildlife Department and currently it is fully sponsored by the Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC).
Currently the unit is headed by its acting manager Dr. Diana Ramirez and with 23 staff, the unit has the responsibility to assist the Wildlife Department on: human wildlife conflicts, (rescue and translocations), enforcement, public awareness and others.