By Nur Adika Bujang
There seems to be no end to elephant slaying in Sabah, with the latest grim “episode” involving the discovery of a badly mutilated carcass in Tongod. This is the first of two articles on the efforts being taken by the state authorities and local communities to protect Sabah’s endangered pygmy elephant.
SANDAKAN (Bernama) – Clear skies greeted the workers of an oil palm plantation near Kampung Imbak in Tongod, Kinabatangan, when they reported for work on the morning of Jan 20 after days of torrential rain.
It was about 8 am when they smelt an awful stench. Following the “trail” of the smell, they found themselves facing a decomposed and dismembered carcass of a Borneo pygmy elephant.
Immediately, the Wildlife Rescue Unit of the Sabah Wildlife Department was called in to investigate.
The brutal killing of the elephant sent shockwaves across Sabah. Two other cases of elephant deaths were also reported in the state last month, one in Lahad Datu and the other in Kinabatangan. The cause of death in both cases is still under investigation.
In the latest case, the heartbreaking sight of the elephant carcass, with part of its body skinned and limbs severed and scattered, was too gruesome for the faint-hearted.
What was even more bizarre was that its trunk was missing while its tusks, known to be valued commodity since ancient times, were intact. Undoubtedly, it was the worst case in Sabah’s history of recorded animal deaths.
Sabah Wildlife Department (SWD) director Augustine Tuuga said while no arrests have been made, his department was determined to investigate the elephant’s death and put the perpetrators behind bars.
He said the elephant was estimated to have been dead for four or five days before its carcass was discovered. He called on the people to channel information that could lead to the arrest of the perpetrators.
Elephant killings are not new in Sabah. Since 2010, according to media reports, 145 cases of elephant deaths have been recorded in Sabah due to poaching, revenge killing and poisoning, as well as accidents, illnesses and other unknown reasons.
Twenty-four pygmy elephant deaths were recorded in 2019, with one of the more shocking cases involving an elephant that was found lying in a ravine on the banks of Sungai Udin in Kalabakan, Tawau, with 70 bullets embedded in its body.
And, in the first two months of last year, five pygmy elephants were found dead due to various causes including injuries and poisoning.
Tuuga said SWD suspected that the recent case in Tongod was a “retaliatory” murder due to the elephant’s mutilated body parts, but its killers’ motive was still being investigated.
DON’T PUNISH THE ELEPHANT
Retaliation killings occur in areas where elephant-man conflicts exist, with farm and plantation owners taking it on themselves to slay the animals that destroy their crops.
Commenting on the discovery of the elephant carcass in Tongod, Hidzwah Ahmat, 32, who lives in Kampung Abai, Kinabatangan said: “I heard elephants had eaten up the villagers’ plants and oil palm. But killing is no way to punish the creatures.
“The best way to drive away the elephants is by calling the SWD’s Wildlife Rescue Unit. That was what the residents in my village did.”
He recalled seeing a herd of Borneo pygmy elephants several times in his village, adding that they frequently trespassed the village cemetery and ruined the graves.
“I don't recall any elephant causing harm to humans unless provoked which is usually the case.
"Despite their intimidating size, these elephants are quite unique. It’s fun to see them swimming across the Kinabatangan River… a real Sabah treasure. Their longevity is healthy for Sabah's forest ecosystem,” he added.
The first time elephants appeared on the family land of Poliana Sidom, who is in her 30s and is from Kampung Gambaron, Telupid, was in the middle of the night.
The jumbos had, apparently, made a silent entrance but their sudden presence spooked Poliana’s family who ran to the police station for help.
She said the villagers were furious because their oil palm trees were ravaged and the fruits eaten up by the “intruders”.
“But thanks to dialogues held in my village by several NGOs like Forever Sabah and Seratu Aatai as well as government agencies, villagers have learned to put up fences and make alarming sounds like pressing their car horns to drive the elephants away without harming them,” she said.
CATCHING THE KILLERS
Investigating the killing of an elephant is one thing but finding out who the “murderers” are and apprehending them is another. In Sabah, SWD and wildlife-related non-governmental organisations are known to offer rewards to individuals who provide information leading to the arrest of the perpetrators.
Responsible Elephant Conservation Trust (Respect) pro tem chairman Alexander Yee told Bernama that people, in general, are usually fearful to lodge reports or offer information on any wrongdoing or individual in connection with the death of an endangered animal like the Borneo pygmy elephant.
“Money (cash rewards) can remove those fears and encourage the people to lodge a report. But it is up to the SWD (to decide on a reward offer). I recall NGOs offering rewards too,” he said.
Yee suggested that SWD set up a website on elephant deaths in Sabah so that the people can keep abreast of the developments of cases involving the endangered species.
He said the website should contain information on deaths, locations of carcass discovery and whether there will be a reward for informants who provide leads to catch the culprits.
Poliana, meanwhile, admitted that her village folks were afraid to tip-off the authorities on the whereabouts of jumbo killers.
She said not only did they fear their lives would be in jeopardy if the killers knew of what they did, but they also felt that sharing vital information with the authorities was not worth their time and effort.
“If there is an offer of a reward, I think that would be effective in encouraging people to make a report.
“Sometimes people do not want to make a report, even though they have information on the killers, but they do not care (to report) because there is no benefit for them,” she said.
Hidzwah felt a cash reward could encourage locals to step up in finding information on elephant killings.
He said a cash reward would enable an investigation to be carried out smoothly that could lead to the arrest of the mammal killers.
“Enforcement of the law in wildlife conservation needs to be firm so that no one will view lightly of the government’s efforts in protecting wildlife such as the pygmy elephants,” he said.
SABAH GOVERNMENT HONOURS PROMISE
The last time the Sabah state government through SWD offered a cash reward for information on killers of a jumbo was in October 2019 following the discovery of an elephant carcass riddled with at least 70 gunshot wounds in Sungai Udin on Sept 25, 2019.
It is understood that the promise of the RM10,000 cash reward, which later increased to RM30,000 following pledges by anonymous donors and Orangutan Appeal UK, was honoured after six men were arrested in connection with the case.
However, after police went to the court twice to get a remand order on the suspects, they were released without being charged, obviously due to the lack of concrete evidence.
In another case which occurred barely a month after the Sungai Udin case, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) offered a reward with a “price tag” of RM50,000 for information on the death of an elephant that was discovered without its tusks in an oil palm estate in Beluran on Oct 20, 2019.
The perpetrators were never caught.
REWARD FOR TONGOD CASE INFORMATION
With regard to last month’s brutal killing of a pygmy elephant in Tongod, Sabah Tourism, Culture and Environment Minister Datuk Jafry Ariffin said so far, no reward has been offered as the case is still being investigated
However, he said the state government would consider a reward offer, which he will discuss with SWD.
“I will discuss the matter with SWD as they also have certain standard operating procedures for such cases.
“What’s for sure, we at the ministry that is responsible view this seriously and call on the community to give their cooperation, give information and ensure that our wildlife can be taken care of,” he added.
Edited by Rema Nambiar
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