KOTA KINABALU - Sabah wildlife officials are harnessing their translocation skills again to move nine Bornean elephants that have been causing anxiety among villagers along Sungai Kinabatangan in the state's interior.
For the past two months, the elephant herd has been boxed into an isolated patch of forest located close to Kampung Sukau, some 120km from Sandakan.
"Though we have been living with elephants all our lives and respect them, the current situation is quite alarming as the elephants are trapped in this small patch of forest and have nowhere to go," said Azrie, a villager from Kampung Sukau.
"During the day, the elephants hide in the jungle. At night, they venture out of the forest patch and enter our kampung in search of food.
"They are destroying our property and crops," he added.
There is also a high risk of vehicles colliding with the pachyderms at night when they cross the nearby trunk road to enter the village area.
"Even our children are afraid to go to school in the early morning or late afternoon because the elephants also go there. We really need help here," added Azrie.
Nurzhafarina Othman, a PhD student who has been studying elephant ecology and movement in Kinabatangan for the past five years, said the situation came about because of destruction of elephant habitat.
Compounding it were bottlenecks in elephant movement pathways due to erection of electric fences and drains by plantation owners and villagers to protect their crops.
The number of elephants in Lower Kinabatangan has been stable over the past 10 years or so. However, the size of habitat available to the animals has shrunk during this period, she said.
Nurzhafarina noted that while the Kinabatangan region had become a renowned eco-tourism destination, forest conversion for agriculture purposes had proceeded unabated.
Sabah Wildlife Department director Datuk Dr Laurentius Ambu said the elephant herd would be relocated to the nearby Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary.
"Translocation is technically possible and our wildlife rescue unit, which is funded by the Malaysian Palm Oil Council, has been actively doing this throughout Sabah for the past few years.
"However, we must realise that elephant translocation is only a fast fix and not a long-term solution," he said.
He described translocation as a complicated endeavour, costing money and creating stress for the animals.
"This exercise alone to translocate nine elephants could easily cost between RM100,000 (S$40,000) and RM200,000," Dr Laurentius added.
He said the department was anticipating more cases of human-elephant conflict not only in Kinabatangan but also other habitats in Sabah.
"The reason why we have conflict is because more elephant habitats are being converted to agriculture land," Dr Laurentius said, adding that the department would also be urging plantations around Kampung Sukau to develop a spatial master plan that would respect elephant corridors.