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Conserving Wildlife Through Sustainable Palm Oil

The initiation of Borneo Elephant Wildlife Sanctuary addresses human-elephant conflict and creates a controlled public access sanctuary to better understand and care for these animals. STR/MOHD RASHIDI YUSUF.

THE Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB) always ensures that palm oil production does not affect the environment and wildlife in the country.

Supporting the concept of 'living together in harmony' between wildlife and oil palm, we make sure that the Malaysian palm oil production complies with the country's current laws and regulations in an effort to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

We have revised the Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) standards last year where improvements were made on matters involving social and labor, good practices, high conservation values, social impact assessment, and quantification of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Retaining high conservation values, high carbon stock areas and riparian buffers, which are part of the requirements of certification schemes such as MSPO, provide opportunities for plantation companies to actively contribute towards wildlife conservation.

The country's policy and legal framework ensures sustainable development balances environmental protection and socioeconomic development through the implementation of various programs and initiatives for the conservation and protection of forests and biodiversity.

Among the programs are the national forestry initiative namely, the Central Forest Spine and Heart of Borneo, reforestation through the replanting of forest tree species, the establishment of wildlife corridors and the reduction of GHG emissions.

Malaysia together with Indonesia and Brunei are active in the "Heart of Borneo" Initiative to conserve about 20 million hectares of ecologically interconnected rainforest, with about 30 per cent of the area in Malaysia.

The initiation of Borneo Elephant Wildlife Sanctuary addresses human-elephant conflict and creates a controlled public access sanctuary to better understand and care for these animals.

The planting of elephant grass species encourages the elephants to utilize the wildlife corridors and help to mitigate human-elephant conflict in Sabah and ultimately allow coexistence between wildlife and plantations.

Malaysia has long made concerted efforts to ensure the conservation of its biodiversity and natural resources by creating and supporting projects both inland and at sea such as the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, Turtle Island Reserve, Sipadan Island Reserve, and Danum Valley. Sepilok, renowned for its orangutan rehabilitation project has expanded its objectives to include public education on conservation and research on other endangered species.

The establishment of the Malaysian Palm Oil Green Conservation Foundation (MPOGCF) reflects the country's commitment in conserving the environment as it is a proactive initiative that sees the Malaysian palm oil industry working together with organizations such as the Sabah Wildlife Department to support wildlife rescue and conservation efforts.

MPOGCF's initiatives include surveys on the latest population of Bornean orang utans and pygmy elephants in Sabah and to identify conservation challenges and opportunities for these wildlife species.

Fragmentation of forests is one of the factors that contribute to the declining population of elephants in the country. The limited area also makes it difficult for elephants to move and find food. Hence, elephants tend to collide with humans and further increase human-elephant conflict, posing threats to the safety of the surrounding communities.

Human-elephant conflict is a major conservation concern in the country. It is also a threat to the safety of the communities and affects the yield of agricultural crops, particularly, oil palm.

According to reports, more than 9,600 cases of human-elephant conflict were recorded in Peninsular Malaysia between 2006 and 2020 with the highest number of attacks totaling 1,108 cases in 2009.

The years between 2010 and 2016 saw a downward trend in the number of elephant attacks with the lowest number of 327 cases registered in 2016.

However, the number of conflicts went up again in the last few years with 341 cases recorded in 2017, 496 cases in 2019 and 549 cases registered in 2020.

Based on several reports, from 2015 to 2020, human-elephant conflicts led to an estimated RM30 million in losses, mainly brought about by damage to crops including oil palm. The year 2019 accounted for almost 50 per cent of the losses at RM14 million.

There were cases of wild elephants affecting the yield of oil palm plantations in Johor and the encounters between the oil palm planters and the communities in the state contribute to the declining number of elephants.

MPOB, in collaboration with Earthworm Foundation, a non-profit organization have conducted a series of field visits, interviews and preliminary surveys to understand the challenges faced by the oil palm smallholders with regard to human-elephant encounters in Johor.

We conducted a survey in Sungai Ara, Kota Tinggi in Johor which is the focus area of the human-elephant encounters and decided to carry out the 'Human-Elephant Coexistence Program', making the area as the pilot location for the project.

This project, funded by the MPOGCF, will support wildlife conservation, improve community safety and reduce crop damage while ensuring the consistency of palm oil supply in the market.

This capacity building project will mitigate the human-elephant conflict which is a concern to the oil palm growers in Sungai Ara.

Smallholders and nearby plantations will competently manage human-elephant encounters through the use of early warning systems and periodic patrols. This integrated management will help improve community safety and reduce damage to crops.

We hope to strengthen data collection to assess the impact of human-elephant coexistence strategies through this project.

This project will inspire other communities to take steps to support human-elephant coexistence efforts and provide long-term sustainable solutions to this complex problem involving the oil palm smallholders, in particular.

*The writer is the director-general of Malaysian Palm Oil Board, Datuk Dr. Ahmad Parveez Ghulam Kadir


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