Balancing elephants needs and oil palm development

THE second half of 2019 is proving to be a trying time for Sabah as elephant deaths and human-elephant conflict have been on the rise, a worrying sign that the remaining endangered Borneo elephant population is severely threatened and could face extinction in our lifetime if swift actions are not taken to hasten its protection.

There are less than 2,000 of them left in the wild. 

On average, a single adult elephant would eat 150kg of vegetation a day. A herd of elephants is made up of anywhere between 15 to 30 individuals – resulting in a demand between 2, 000 to 4, 500 kg of sustenance on a daily basis.

For plantations, this can mean significant crop damage in just one night. Practical, long-term solutions must be put in place to enable elephants and people to coexist. 

With most of the forest landscape in Sabah fragmented into pockets and the planting of oil palm adjacent to forests, this crop is an attractive option and an easy target for elephants as the favoured young palm shoots would supplement their diets considerably. 

The Borneo elephants are concentrated in eastern Sabah and extend southwards across the border to neighbouring North Kalimantan, where a small population is known to subsist. Elephants are known to use larger areas of intact forests that flow between the two countries.

Putting strategy into sharing space with wildlife

Sabah Softwoods Berhad (SSB), a mixed industrial tree plantation and oil palm plantation, located in the district of Tawau, started experiencing crop damage from  2004.

In 2012, WWF-Malaysia started engaging with the company to reduce crop damage and encourage coexistence in the landscape by allowing elephants to access certain parts of their plantation.

This close engagement led to the establishment of a 1,067 hectare wildlife corridor in 2013, to facilitate elephant movement throughout the landscape. 

Scientific and behavioural research has shown that elephants are habitual and will walk the same traditional paths taught to by their matriarch leaders over the generations, even after forest conversions for agricultural development – in this instance into a plantation.

The wildlife corridor spans 14 kilometres long with varying widths of 400 to 800 metres depending on the terrain of the area.

This wildlife corridor is crucial to elephant and other wildlife species to traverse the landscape freely from the forest reserves of Ulu Kalumpang in the south and Ulu Segama in the north. 

The corridor is currently being restored because Sabah Softwoods Berhad has invested RM1.76 million to replant the wildlife corridor with an assortment of native plant species and fruit trees that are important to fruit-eating forests animals.

In support of this restoration effort, Unilever, a global company has provided resources to co-fund plant tree species along other parts of  the corridor. 

In addition to that, the Sabah Softwoods Berhad adopted a strategic land use plan to minimise crop damage by realigning electric fences around vulnerable young palm trees and community settlements to keep these areas safe, whilst allowing elephants to access their tree plantation areas and mature palm tree areas where damage is negligible.

These are long-term mitigation efforts that have helped substantially reduce crop damage, and Sabah Softwoods Berhad’s continuous commitment towards the conservation of the Borneo elephants by making their plantation more wildlife-friendly is indeed laudable. 

Since the intervention of conservation efforts within the plantation in 2012, the cost of crop damage has significantly declined in the first two years.

In 2014, WWF-Malaysia started collaring elephants in the plantation and have since had a better understanding of their movement patterns of five elephants. This crucial data is used to guide land use plans, and the placement of electric-fences as well as, to assist the company to plan their operations around elephant movements for safety measures.

WWF-Malaysia’s strategic integrated land use planning approach has since then been expanded to the neighbouring plantation companies in the Kalabakan landscape in Tawau through a Human-elephant conflict working group in 2016 to ensure that joint mitigation measures can be developed and implemented for the whole landscape. These efforts are expected to reduce crop damages over the long-term and encourage coexistence between the plantation owners and elephants.

Three pillars for effective conservation in business 

Living Landscapes: Protect, Produce, Restore

While Sabah Softwoods Berhad’s move is an exemplary response to increasing coexistence between humans and elephants, its efforts need to be widespread and replicated by plantations small, medium, and large on a landscape level so that these plantation landscapes adopt a more wildlife-friendly approach which helps reduce human-elephant conflict and support all wildlife species conservation. 

The overall message from Sabah is that sustainability is only achievable through maintaining the balance between conservation and socio-economic development, which involves the protection of healthy forests, resilient wildlife, clean rivers and fresh air. 

This needs to be supported by land-use planning which reconciles State and local stakeholders development pathways without further deforestation or animal extinctions: Malaysia’s last Sumatran rhino tragically died in Sabah last month.

In order to maintain this balance, sustainable palm oil, forest management and wildlife conservation need to be considered at landscape level to combine three elements – protect, produce and restore.

Protection includes looking after High Conservation Value (HCV) areas to protect forests, rivers and wildlife.

Production incorporates credible global standards of sustainable practices such as the Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) and the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).

Restoration integrates the creation of wildlife corridors to connect forest patches and improving habitats for plants and animals.  It is only through the fulfillment of all three criteria will we be able to achieve a lasting solution for sustainable development. 

WWF-Malaysia’s Executive Director/CEO, Sophia Lim
© WWF-Malaysia / Rahana Husin

WWF-Malaysia’s CEO, Sophia Lim, stresses that this approach supports Malaysia’s recent commitment to maintain half the country as forested, and Sabah has further pledged to expand the Totally Protected Areas to cover 30% of the State’s land mass by 2025. 

The State government has made good progress by setting aside 1.9 million hectares, or 26 per cent of the goal, with a commitment to identify the remaining forests for protection. 

“Our continued collaboration with the Sabah government and plantation companies proves that we can achieve a balance of meeting human needs while ensuring that environmental concerns are addressed,” she said.

The business big picture

The palm oil industry contributes to significant socio-economic benefits to Sabah. 

Its share of the global palm oil market is between 8% to 10%, with India and China leading the way in being palm oil’s biggest buyers.

In 2018, sales tax on crude palm oil (CPO) contributed to more than RM900 million of State revenue from 1.55 million hectares of plantations on a production of 5.2 million metric tonnes of CPO. 

Malaysia has already indicated that it does not seek further oil palm expansion, and required all growers to be MSPO certified by the end of 2019.

Sabah has gone a step further to build the sustainability of this sector, with a statement that 100% of the State’s palm oil should be RSPO certified by 2025.

Already 26% of Sabah’s oil palm area is RSPO certified, and palm oil buyers should support our ambition to develop a sustainable industry. 

When these palm oil areas are RSPO certified, this would mean all of Sabah’s palm oil is guaranteed to comply with certification requirement that is free from deforestation, friendly to elephant, orangutan and other wildlife species, as well as other environmental and social considerations. Sabah is then poised to enter into a new industrial development that fulfils many of the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

Ultimately, the future of the palm oil industry in Malaysia needs to develop beyond the dependency on upstream activities. Whether we like it or not, raw materials and natural resources are finite and approaching sustainable development via the landscape approach is the way to go, with more value added from downstream processing. 

Datuk Dr Pang Teck Wai

“From a business perspective, the higher value downstream industry will reduce a dependency on the fluctuation of crude palm oil (CPO) prices. This can be done through expanding new opportunities for businesses to develop more palm products such as processed food, second-generation biofuel, oleo derivatives, and bioplastics and biochemical,” according to Datuk Dr. Pang Teck Wai, CEO and Director of the Palm Oil Industrial Cluster (POIC) Sabah.

“By developing downstream activities and value-added products, our forests and its rich biodiversity will be able to remain intact while our economy flourishes from the lucrative returns that the downstream industry offers,” he added. A collective move towards the downstream industry that are shown to have sustainably produced raw materials will provide an extra layer of assurance that the remainder of our forests will remain as such for the foreseeable future. 

It is only in ensuring that our forests remain intact can we ensure that the elephants – the megafauna that currently roam its lands are protected. 

At the end of the day, a shift such as this would perhaps be the true embodiment of the term sustainable development. Businesses, the economy and the people stand to benefit from a more lucrative industry while nature and its inhabitants – elephants in particular – will stand a good chance of survival. A win-win situation in the eternal search for a balance  between conservation and development.

Feature by WWF-Malaysia Elaine Mah.


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