By Benjamin Loh
The Malaysian palm oil industry has consistently supported efforts towards the protection and conservation of Malaysia’s unique wildlife. The recent introduction of the historic elephant conservation initiative – the Sabah Elephant Action Plan (SEAP) (2012 – 2016) demonstrates the industry’s resolve in ensuring the continued wellbeing of elephants in the state of Sabah. Its involvement in this government-led plan shows that the industry increasingly sees the connection between palm oil profits and the well-being of Malaysia’s elephants.
Concerned about the long term well being of these majestic animals, the palm oil industry is paving the way for the protection of pachyderms. Conservation efforts have focused on solving issues such as human-wildlife conflict and rehabilitating ecological corridors. Moving forward from singular project-based efforts, 2012 marked an evolutionary milestone where the palm oil industry proactively was involved in the development of encompassing conservation action plans. The Asian elephant (elephas maximus) and the Borneo Pygmy Elephant (elephas maximus borneensis) are currently categorized as endangered in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. It is protected by the Wildlife Protection Act 2010 and the Sabah Wildlife Conservation Enactment 1997. Recent years have seen increased human-elephant conflicts (HECs) in areas or region of high elephant occurrence causing economic and reputation damages, as well as precious elephant lives.
Here, SEAP has great potential in producing a meaningful solution as it places the protection of remaining wild elephant populations and their habitat at the highest priority. This platform is envisaged to provide important opportunities for the palm oil industry. More importantly the plan promotes greater awareness towards rehabilitating or conserving important wildlife areas such as natural corridors and important resource areas.
Shaping Malaysia’s Contemporary Elephant Conservation Strategy
The Malaysian government’s recognition on the importance of stakeholder partnerships in biodiversity conservation is asserted in the National Policy on Biological Diversity, 1998. In this spirit, the conservation ambitions of SEAP are built from a platform that secure early participation from a stakeholder cohort of local and international conservation groups, government agencies, universities, palm oil industry and NGOs. This enabling environment is further strengthened by robust dialogues and broad-based consultations between stakeholders.
While strategies in the past were inadequate in addressing the complexities of elephant conservation, the strength of SEAP lies in the adoption of a scientific-based approach and adaptive management principles. With a shared common vision, the stakeholders develop detailed short-term and long-term action plans. These are aligned with existing policies and framework such as the National Physical Plan (2010 – 2020), National Biodiversity Policy 1998, State Action Plans, Central Forest Spine and Heart of Borneo Initiative.
Potentially, SEAP will be able to push elephant conservation to the next level, better facilitate informed decision making processes and increase adaptability in addressing new conservation challenges. Therefore, the participation of the palm oil industry is important as it adds value into the process of shaping a contemporary and credible elephant conservation initiative with win-win goals.
Meaningful Contribution from the Palm Oil Industry
The ultimate success of SEAP lies in the willingness and effectiveness of stakeholders to work the plan towards achieving conservation objectives. With previous experience in wildlife conservation programmes, the palm oil industry is well positioned to demonstrate full engagement and support to the implementation process of SEAP. Undoubtedly, a wealth of opportunities for potential interactions and collaborations are anticipated. It makes sense that the industry should not shy away from helping push some of the most urgent and difficult tasks to be implemented as its active involvement and timely actions help bridge long-lasting trust with stakeholders.
SEAP aims to implement the concept of Managed Elephant Ranges (MERs) in four important natural areas including the Lower Kinabatangan, Northern Kinabatangan, Tabin, and Central Sabah. Here, elephant habitats are identified and secured with the creation of corridors to connect existing protected areas. This will then facilitate migration routes which potentially help to maintain and enhance wild population. The palm oil industry will help promote, support, monitor and reduce its impacts on the MERs. Specific protection initiatives could be spawned for critical corridors, particularly those adjacent to oil palm plantations. Replanting programmes can be widely deployed to restore and enrich the MERs.
Also, SEAP is an ideal platform for the industry to contribute towards shaping best practices in human-elephant conflict (HEC) mitigation. Essential steps toward best practices could be initiated such as the provisions of HEC sensitizing and training programmes to employees and plantation workers. The industry has taken the opportunity to work with relevant stakeholders to innovate mitigation solutions to reduce HECs. This is evident from the wildlife patrol efforts established at potential conflict sites and areas.
In the area of enforcement, the palm oil industry has played a big part in ensuring protection by helping to strengthen state and national wildlife enforcement informant network. This is evident particularly in Sabah where the industry has helped develop the Wildlife Rescue Unit; a first response team to tackle issues on wildlife protection and enforcement.
Ultimately, the level of success of SEAP is formed by the public and the palm oil industry being accurately and frequently well informed through areas of effective communications and conservation education. The industry is keen in working together with local communities and small holders with the knowledge of the importance of elephant conservation. Together with collaboration efforts with grassroots NGOs and wildlife authority, the palm oil industry believes in multi level stakeholder engagement that facilities elephant conservation ideals in all level of stakeholder and supply chain. This essence of engagement is accurately reflected in the SEAP.
Potential Benefits for the Palm Oil Industry
The Palm Oil Industry has the opportunity to benefit greatly from SEAP. The industry, with pre-emptive planning and measures for wildlife protection and conflict evasion, can also look forward to reduced economic losses; achieve greater efficiency in production and operations. As a result of best practices in HEC mitigation, there would be potential increase in future crop production.
Additionally, integrating conservation-based collaborations into business operations potentially increase the industry’s green footprint capacity and assist in natural resource management. The spill over from rigorous monitoring in conservation science provides reliable data and as result of the implementation of the plan, will shape better quality decision making, planning and responses.
Demonstrating an active role in dynamic sustainability alliances helps the palm oil industry better manage corporate reputation, attract investors, improve relations with stakeholders and become even more competitive.
The quest for saving Malaysian elephants unfolds urgently in the coming years. Through SEAP the palm oil industry will play its part to reduce its impact on this flagship species, securing large scale biodiversity, long term spatial stability and harmony within and beyond oil palm plantation regions.
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Yasak, M. N., et al. (2012) Managed Elephant Ranges (MERs). The University of Nottingham Malaysia’s Management and Ecology of Malaysian Elephants (MEME), World Conservation Society (WCS), Department of Wildlife and National Parks (DWNP). Slides presented at the Workshop on National Elephant Conservation Action Plan (NECAP) on 29 November – 1 December, 2012 at Biodiversity Institute, Lanchang, Pahang. Retrieved from http://www.wildlife.gov.my/images/stories/muaturun/NECAP/Managed Elephant Ranges.pdf.
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