The ele­phant in my room

The orang asli in the Royal Belum State Park are con­stantly fend­ing off ele­phants that have been translo­cated into their back­yards.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - FRONT PAGE - By ELROI YEE, SHANJEEV REDDY and IAN YEE allther­age@thes­

Since 2010, over 36 ele­phants have been translo­cated to the Ja­hai tribe’s back­yard. R. AGE faced up to a charg­ing ele­phant to film their sto­ries.

IT was late at night, and the jun­gle was al­most pitch black. Our video crew was hud­dled next to a large tree stump, hop­ing it would pro­tect us in case we were at­tacked.

For the first time, we found our­selves alone in the jun­gle, sep­a­rated in the dark­ness from our orang asli hosts, who had so kindly agreed to let us stay in their bam­boo huts.

The son of our host, a young man, ran to our hut to warn us that we were in dan­ger. By the time we gath­ered our video equip­ment and got out of the hut, the en­tire vil­lage was in mo­tion. The women and chil­dren were board­ing a boat to take refuge in the middle of the river.

In the dark­ness, we could hear the men in the jun­gle, wail­ing and bang­ing on what­ever they could find to make noise. The sur­round­ing vil­lages were do­ing the same. Flash­lights were point­ing ev­ery­where, bon­fires were lit.

And then we spot­ted it. An ele­phant, or orang kuat, as the orang asli call them, had wan­dered into the vil­lage.

It ap­peared to be look­ing for food, and was al­ready chew­ing on fo­liage less than 50m from where we were.

Though it showed few signs of ag­gres­sion, the orang asli were tense. They had told us sto­ries of how ele­phants have killed their peo­ple. All we could hope to do was stay out of its way, which wasn’t easy con­sid­er­ing how dark ev­ery­thing was.

Then, our R. AGE se­nior pro­ducer Elroi Yee then came up with the idea of hid­ing be­hind the tree stump.

In hind­sight, it would have made lit­tle dif­fer­ence. It’s hard to com­pre­hend the size and strength of an ele­phant un­til you’re face- to- face with one – like we were.

For a few ter­ri­fy­ing mo­ments, the ele­phant charged to­wards us, be­fore veer­ing away into the dark­ness, snap­ping trees down in its wake.

The orang asli at the Royal Belum State Park have, un­for­tu­nately, be­come in­creas­ingly ex­posed to the ele­phants’ de­struc­tive force.

The Wildlife and Na­tional Parks Depart­ment ( Per­hili­tan) said as many as 36 ele­phants have been translo­cated into the park since 2010, dou­bling the ele­phant pop­u­la­tion there and putting the orang asli – and what­ever lit­tle crops they grow – in dan­ger.

Ele­phants are usu­ally translo­cated into jun­gles when­ever they wan­der into con­flict with hu­mans. It’s a log­i­cal, if slightly de­bat­able, prac­tice.

Sadly, what some fail to re­alise is that there are hu­mans liv­ing in our jun­gles too.

Un­der at­tack

The R. AGE crew was in Sun­gai Ke­jar, one of many orang asli set­tle­ments in the state park, to in­ves­ti­gate claims of an un­usu­ally high child mor­tal­ity rate, which the lo­cal Ja­hai tribe be­lieve is caused by a dis­ease they call ser­awan.

But as we quickly dis­cov­ered, ser­awan wasn’t the only prob­lem the orang asli were fac­ing.

We had rented a boat to get into Sun­gai Ke­jar, and from there, we were all on our own. We had to ap­proach the tribes­men, earn their trust, and ask for a place to stay and a chance to tell their sto­ries.

On the first night in the jun­gle, we heard screams and howls in the dis­tance. It seemed to come from a neigh­bour­ing vil­lage.

We vis­ited the vil­lage the fol­low­ing day, only to find it aban­doned. The homes were ripped apart, and the vil­lagers’ be­long­ings strewn all over the com­pound.

“It hap­pened around 4am,” said Ked­eri, one of two men who came back to gather sup­plies. “I woke up and saw the trunk of the ele­phant in­side my house, look­ing for food. We im­me­di­ately jumped out of bed and ran into the jun­gle.”

Turns out, there were two ele­phants, and they took most of the food the fam­i­lies had stored up. The rest was tossed onto the dirt.

We vis­ited seven vil­lages in Sun­gai Ke­jar, and at all seven, we en­coun­tered sim­i­lar sto­ries about ele­phants. The orang asli would grow their crops for months, then lose them all within a night to hun­gry ele­phants. Of late, the ele­phants have be­come bolder, ven­tur­ing into houses in search of salt and rice, as in the case of Ked­eri’s vil­lage.

Ked­eri and the 20 or so vil­lagers – which in­cluded women and young chil­dren – were forced to move up into the hills, where it would be harder for the ele­phants to reach them. They took lit­tle more than the clothes on their backs.

“We will stay in the hills un­til the ele­phants leave. They will come back tonight, I’m sure of it,” said Ked­eri.

But that wasn’t to be the last we’d hear about the ele­phants. Later that evening, while we were on our boat head­ing back to our vil­lage, we saw a few ele­phants swim­ming across the river, dan­ger­ously close to an­other vil­lage. And that very night was when we found our­selves hid­ing be­hind that tree stump.


The Ja­hai said their beef with the ele­phants is a rel­a­tively new de­vel­op­ment. In fact, Ked­eri be­lieves they have a spe­cial re­la­tion­ship with the lo­cal ele­phants. “We could com­mu­ni­cate with those ele­phants,” he said. “It’s the new ones that are caus­ing us prob­lems.”

So es­sen­tially, this isn’t a case of orang asli vs ele­phants. It’s only hap­pen­ing be­cause some­one de­cided to dump 36 ele­phants – mostly prob­lem­atic ones – on the Ja­hai’s back­yard, and left them to deal with the fall­out.

And that brings us to the is­sue of translo­ca­tion. Dr Ahimsa Cam­posAr­ceiz, a Span­ish ele­phant con­ser­va­tion­ist based in Malaysia, said in the 70s, Malaysians dealt with hu­man- ele­phant con­flict by shoot­ing the ele­phants. In that sense, translo­cat­ing the an­i­mals into state parks is ob­vi­ously more hu­mane.

But translo­ca­tion has plenty of down­sides too. A Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia study in 2008 showed that mor­tal­ity rates among translo­cated ele­phants in the Tsavo East Na­tional Park, Kenya were “sig­nif­i­cantly high-

er” than lo­cal ele­phants.

More re­cently, a 2012 study man­dated by the Depart­ment of Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion Sri Lanka tracked the move­ments of ele­phants translo­cated to na­tional parks in Sri Lanka through GPS col­lars. It con­cluded that translo­ca­tion “causes in­ten­si­fi­ca­tion and broader prop­a­ga­tion of hu­man- ele­phant con­flict and in­creased ele­phant mor­tal­ity,” which de­feats the en­tire pur­pose of translo­ca­tion.

Dr Cam­pos- Ar­ceiz is hes­i­tant to blame translo­ca­tion for hu­man- ele­phant con­flicts, but ad­mits it is not the best so­lu­tion.

Hu­mans in the jun­gle, he be­lieves, should learn to pro­tect their crops, be it through build­ing trenches or elec­tri­cal fences.

“Translo­ca­tion can be used in some cases, but it needs to be the last re­sort,” said Dr Cam­pos- Ar­ceiz.

“Ele­phants are very in­tel­li­gent, very sen­tient an­i­mals, with very com­plex emo­tions and so­cial in­ter­ac­tions. They know their homes very well, so when you place them some­where else, they get con­fused, and many try to find their way home.”

On top of that, translo­cated ele­phants are of­ten thought to be more prob­lem­atic – per­fectly un­der­stand­able given they’ve been yanked away from their homes.

“There is a fair amount of truth there,” added Dr Cam­pos- Ar­ceiz. “The ele­phant is con­fused, it’s not in its nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment. Stuff like crops be­come a much more at­trac­tive re­source when you are un­der stress, and you don’t know where the good feed­ing grounds are.

“Also, ele­phants that are stressed and up­set might de­velop an ag­gres­sive re­sponse to peo­ple.”

Hot potato

Iron­i­cally, while ele­phants are be­ing translo­cated away from their homes, the Ja­hai peo­ple – tra­di­tion­ally no­madic – are be­ing en­cour­aged to stay put.

This makes it eas­ier for them to get aid from the au­thor­i­ties, but it also means they can’t move any­where else once the veg­e­ta­tion in their area has been de­pleted, which was kinda how things worked for them way back when. The ra­tions they get from au­thor­i­ties aren’t ex­actly a bal­anced diet on their own ei­ther – white rice, con­densed milk, tea, flour, sugar, cook­ing oil, Milo and some canned food.

So in a way, the orang asli and ele­phants are ac­tu­ally in the same cor­ner. Both have had their way of life forcibly changed by mod­ern so­ci­ety.

The perks for the orang asli in­clude be­ing able to get help from the Orang Asli De­vel­op­ment Depart­ment ( Jakoa). When we asked Jakoa district of­fi­cer Razali Khamis if he know about the hu­man- ele­phant con­flict in his district, he said he had not re­ceived a sin­gle re­port. We then checked with the Perak State Parks Cor­po­ra­tion ( PSPC), which manag- es the Royal Belum State Park, and the re­sult was the same.

“There are very few cases be­cause there aren’t any set­tle­ments in the area ex­cept for the small orang asli ones,” said Noor Ilyani Abd Rani, a PSPC ad­min­is­tra­tive of­fi­cer.

She said mat­ters in­volv­ing an­i­mals within the state park were the re­spon­si­bil­ity of Per­hili­tan, and orang asli wel­fare is han­dled by other govern­ment agen­cies. PSPC will only as­sist them in the event of an emer­gency. We asked how of­ten do they pro­vide such as­sis­tance. She said she only has one recorded case.

As was the case with our re­port on ser­awan, a com­mon ar­gu­ment we heard was that the orang asli were not re­port­ing th­ese prob­lems, so the au­thor­i­ties can’t pos­si­bly help.

How­ever, the R. AGE team sighted a man­age­ment plan drafted by WWF Malaysia and the state park in 2011 which iden­ti­fied hu­man- ele­phant con­flict within the park as a “se­ri­ous is­sue”. The plan also noted that translo­cated ele­phants were ag­gra­vat­ing the prob­lem.

The plan was ap­proved and adopted by the state park, so the is­sue is nei­ther new nor un­known.

But we played along with their lit­tle game of mu­si­cal chairs, and ap­proached Per­hilli­tan. They said they’ve only re­ceived one re­port of hu­man- ele­phant con­flict.

“We strongly urge the orang asli to lodge a re­port at the near­est Per­hili­tan district of­fice or call us via the care- line or our mySMS ser­vice,” said Muhamad Amin­ud­din Ah­mad, the Per­hili­tan district of­fi­cer. “If we do not re­ceive a re­port, we can­not take ac­tion.”

Sounds great, but there are two prob­lems with that – the Ja­hai don’t have phones, and their vil­lage is two hours away by speed­boat to the near­est jetty. From there, it’s an­other hour’s drive to the near­est town.

The so­lu­tion

Univer­siti Malaya an­thro­pol­o­gist Ka­mal Sol­haimi Fadzil, who has con­ducted ex­ten­sive re­search among orang asli com­mu­ni­ties in the Belum- Temeng­gor area, ad­vo­cates a rad­i­cal so­lu­tion.

“They should set up a joint task force, which in­cludes rep­re­sen­ta­tives from the com­mu­nity, so one can deal with com­mu­nity is­sues such as hu­man- an­i­mal con­flict and liveli­hood is­sues, while the other deals with is­sues like poach­ing and il­le­gal en­croach­ment,” he said.

The end goal of such a plan would be for the in­dige­nous com­mu­ni­ties to play a prom­i­nent role in the con­ser­va­tion of their own land.

“We should start to move to­wards a com­mu­nity- based model, where the com­mu­nity is trained to even­tu­ally take over park man­age­ment du­ties be­cause they are the real hosts, the ear­li­est in­hab­i­tants and the peo­ple who know this land­scape the best,” said Ka­mal.

Dr Cam­pos- Ar­ceiz said the orang asli have to be trained to live with the ele­phants, and pro­tect their crops, be­cause translo­ca­tion or not, “there can be no such thing as too many ele­phants.”

“There needs to be a so­cial way, a dis­cus­sion about th­ese is­sues,” he added.

“Hu­mans have been in those forests for thou­sands of years. It’s naive to think that hu­mans don’t have a space there.”

In fact, the Ja­hai peo­ple have been in the Belum rain­forests for gen­er­a­tions. When their land was gazetted as a pro­tected area in 2007, ev­ery­thing changed.

Sud­denly there were re­stric­tions on what they could hunt, what they could gather, where they could farm, how they should be­have. And now, they per­ceive the threat of ele­phants as orig­i­nat­ing from the ac­tions of the au­thor­i­ties.

“They only give us a lake,” said one Ja­hai man, re­fer­ring to the Temeng­gor dam which was built down­river. “But no fish.”

An­other man com­plained about park vis­i­tors: “When they come in, they look at me like I’m a bird. They never ask me for per­mis­sion to pass.” The Ja­hai are ter­ri­to­rial. They never cross tribal bound­aries out of re­spect for their neigh­bour­ing tribes.

“They stop us from fish­ing, stop us from gath­er­ing wood,” said an­other. “So I asked them, How are we to sur­vive? And they couldn’t an­swer.”


Ked­eri of the in­dige­nous ahai tribe stand­ing in the par­tially de­stroyed room where he and his fam­ily lived. It was torn apart by ele­phants in the middle of the night caus­ing the en­tire vil­lage to lit­er­ally

run for the hills. Our R. AGE video crew spoke to Ked­eri while he was back sal­vaging sup­plies for their makeshift camp in the hills. Watch the full video at rage. com. my.

1 The r. AGe crew caught this ele­phant on cam­era, right be­fore it charged at us.

2 When­ever an ele­phant wan­ders into their vil­lages, the orang asli women and chil­dren take their bam­boo rafts out into the river, while the men try to dis­tract the an­i­mals by mak­ing loud noises and light­ing bon­fires.

3 An ele­phant had stuck its trunk through this house, look­ing for food. All that’s left now is the frame of the house.


Our R. AGE video crew cap­tured the chaos that erupts when­ever an ele­phant wan­ders into the orang asli vil­lages at the royal Belum State Park. Watch the full doc­u­men­tary at rage. com. my.

— Pho­tos: eLrOI yee/ r. AGe

4 Ked­eri con­tem­plates the fate of his fam­ily af­ter they were forced to flee into the hills in the middle of the night due to an ele­phant ‘ at­tack’.


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