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Our gentle giants running out of space

August 24, 2012

FMT LETTER: From S M Mohd Idris, via e-mail

Sporadic reports of elephant sightings have brought into sharp focus the continuously accelerating rate of which we are losing wildlife habitat, a concern that indicates elephants are running out of space and time.

Incidents of human-elephant conflict have increased. Degradation and the diversion of elephant habitat for human activities creates a clear need to adopt insightful and proactive measures to secure a future for what is one of the world’s most exotic, intelligent, and humble animals.

Increasing amounts of land granted to large iron ore mines seriously threatens the pachyderms. The fragile ecosystem sustaining some of the earth’s most endangered species is collapsing under the weight of relentless industrialization, as the government pushes ahead with pro-industry policies in the name of development.

Among the many threats to elephants, there are two that require special attention. The first is the prevalence of degraded habitats in the majority of the elephant’s range. This is one reason why they move out of the forests to raid crops that are palatable and nutritious.

The second is the fragmentation and shrinkage of forest cover to accommodate an ever increasing human population and associated developmental activities. These factors pose a threat to a wide range of species.

With relentless human invasion on our forests and wildlife, what percentage of elephant habitat remains protected? The fate of protected forests remains uncertain, while they can be converted into reserve forests or community forests, a large portion are filled with villages, agricultural land, and even cities which are crisscrossed by roads, rail tracks, army cantonments, institutional buildings, illegal settlements, and power and irrigation projects. Traditionally these developments occur throughout the migratory routes.

Crop raiding results in habitat loss, fragmentation, and degradation; all processes that result in the depletion of resources for elephants. The solution is not wildlife reserves that compete with other priorities and exclude people. The solution is to place the highest priority on securing wildlife corridors (traditional migration routes of elephants) to maintain the vital connections between these reserves and other forest patches, benefiting other species as well.

The Natural Resource Environment Ministry should assist all state governments in the elephant states to ensure that corridors are not compromised through strict adherence to the Federal government-led plans, such as the Central Forest Spine and the National Physical Plan. No development should be allowed near corridor areas.

Efforts must be made to strengthen identified corridors between critical populations. Corridors, by connecting smaller areas, expand the landscapes and make them continuous, enabling elephants to support more individuals of a particular species than smaller areas can. They also allow populations to interbreed, improving long-term genetic viability.

The government’s track record for creating and legalizing corridors is dismal, as the establishment of corridors requires political will and money. States have not shown an interest in the issue, and politicians show no genuine concern for the country’s wildlife.

The elephant habitat and the chances for survival are disappearing. Elephant state governments must, with utmost sincerity, endeavour to make elephant habitats secure and productive, protect elephants, and enable the remaining magnificent gentle giants to roam the forests without the fear of persecution at the hands of man.

If nothing is done to secure the elephant’s shrinking habitat, less than one in ten Asian elephants remain from a figures a century before. Even more worrying, these habitats have been squeezed into pockets of forest that are altogether twenty times smaller than before. They are simply running out of space and time. Can we really allow this magnificent beast to vanish on our watch?

The writer is president of Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM)


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