KOTA KINABALU, Aug 23 — Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre is one of Sabah’s best known tourist attractions for its cute and always entertaining inhabitants
But in recent times, Sepilok has become home to another makeshift family, one that tourists are largely unaware of, even as they are startled by their occasional bellows and hoots.
“We’ve had a a few 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,” said Wildlife Rescue Unit (WRU) veterinarian Dr Laura Benedict.
The WRU has made Sepilok their base in eastern Sabah since 2013 and have been housing their orphaned baby elephants in the quiet, peaceful depths of the Sepilok enclosure, on the fringes of the Bornean jungle.
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.
“Like it or not, we had to find a space to keep these elephants,” she said.
In recent years, orphaned elephant have become disturbingly commonplace. Oil palm plantations and human settlements eating into the wild areas 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. Whilst the orphans are young — and susceptible to illnesses — the WRU are keeping a very close eye on them. Each day, Benedict and her colleagues feed, monitor and exercise the babies.
Like all children, the toddler elephants need plenty of play time, and the best quality of life the WRU can provide is one where the elephants can enjoy growing up at Sepilok.
But even with the close attention and monitoring from Dr Benedict and team, without the herd’s nurturing or experience of the jungle, the chances of these orphans surviving and thriving in the wild are greatly diminished.
“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,” said Benedict.
If all goes to plan, she said that there will be a larger elephant care unit for the orphaned elephants incorporated in the Borneo Elephant Sanctuary, which can provide a rehabilitation program or keep them in captivity for awhile.
In the cases of more difficult and dangerous elephants, the teams call upon local expert Jibius “JB” Dausip who has earned a reputation for being the elephant guru.
For over 35 years, JB has worked more closely than anyone with Borneo’s largest animals; and has been training others to do the same.
At the BES, JB 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 JB 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,” JB said, 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 do we 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 JB and Benedict have long considered.
“We really need to find a sound solution so that human communities, elephants and industry leaders will be able to co-exist one day,” said Benedict.
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 best thing is 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, that place can — and should — be in the wild,” she said.
Watch more of the plight of elephants in Sabah in Season 2 of the Borneo Wildlife Warriors as presenter Aaron “Bertie” Gekoski continues his journey into the heart of wildlife conservation in Borneo, training to become a ranger with the Wildlife Rescue Unit. In their latest episode, Bertie visits Dr Laura at Sepilok and JB at BES, to learn how they are caring for Borneo’s most vulnerable elephants.