KOTA KINABALU - Sabah's eco-tourism players are taking great risks when allowing tourists to get as close as possible to look at the endangered Borneo pygmy elephants in the wild.
Sabah Wildlife Department director Datuk Dr Laurentius Ambu said it was a dangerous practice, besides putting tourists at the risk of being attacked by wild animals including the elephants.
"I am really disappointed and shocked over the reports I have received from our wardens from Hutan-Kinabatangan Orangutan Conservation Project (KOCP)," he said.
Wildlife wardens have found that tour operators, guides and boatmen are making stops along river tributaries in the Kinabatangan area to allow tourists into the jungle and try to get a glimpse of the elephants.
Dr Ambu said yesterday that photographs were taken this month, which showed tourist boats from the lodges and villages stopping by the banks of Tomanggong Besar River (tributary of the Kinabatangan River) and tourists getting out to have a better glimpse of elephants in the jungle.
"This issue has been brought up time and time again in the media and at various meetings and discussions. There is no excuse for getting out of the boats and risking everyone's life, including children, as seen in the photographs.
"This kind of behaviour is dangerous for the people and stressful to the elephants," he said.
He reminded tourism players of an incident in December 2011 when an elephant in the Tabin Wildlife Reserve killed an Australian tourist after she left the trail to take pictures of the animal.
It was believed that the tourist had not heeded the advice of her guide to stay on the trail, he said.
"Everyone in Sabah, particularly those in the tourist industry, is well aware of that case.
"Yet, we have tour guides and boatmen taking such risks by snapping photographs of elephants in the jungle in Lower Kinabatangan.
"If one of the elephants is startled by the camera flash or the presence of human beings, the herd could panic and charge at the tourists," he warned.
Nurzhafarina Othman, a Malaysian doctoral student registered at Cardiff University who has been studying the wild elephants of the Kinabatangan since 2008, said that a close human proximity to the elephants was unhealthy in the long term.
She explained that it could alter the behaviour of these elephants and jeopardise their movements.
"People need to show respect and keep a distance. We need to keep at least 30m away from the elephants. Tourists must not leave the boat during their river cruise. But yet they continue to get close to the elephants," said Nurzhafarina, who is also attached to the Danau Girang Field Centre.