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MEME – moving towards a science-based conservation of Malaysian elephants

HII NING, WONG EE PHIN, PRAVEENA CHACKRAPANI, ALICIA SOLANA-MENA, ANGE TAN SEOK LING, KHAGAYATKARASU NAGULENDRAN, JAMIE WADEY, LIM TECK WYN, LISA ONG, NURUL AZUWA OSMAN, ANDERS KROMANN-CLAUSEN, SHIORI YAMAMOTO-EBINA, VANITHA PONNUSAMY, SALMAN SAABAN, NASHARUDDIN BIN OTHMAN, AHIMSA CAMPOS-ARCEIZ

Abstract


Elephants and other megafauna play key and irreplaceable roles in ecosystem
processes but – due to their high demand for resources and lack of natural predators – are
maladapted to the Anthropocene’s human-dominated world. If we want elephants to survive
beyond the bottleneck of the 21st century, business as usual is not an option; we need to find
effective ways to coexist with them. Peninsular Malaysia is home to approximately 1,500
wild elephants that in less than two generations have seen over half of their natural habitat
replaced by rubber, oil palm, and other anthropogenic land uses. This has led to a sharp
decline in elephant range and increase of human-elephant conflict (HEC) in the form of
crop raiding. Over the past 40 years, elephant management in Malaysia has largely been
based on the translocation of elephants from conflict zones to protected areas. At the ISNaC
conference, we introduced the work of the ‘Management & Ecology of Malaysian
Elephants’ (MEME), an interdisciplinary project run as a collaboration between the local
wildlife authorities and university researchers that aims to bring an evidence-based
approach to the conservation of Malaysian elephants. We use a combination of
GPS-satellite tracking, camera-traps, non-invasive molecular tools and other ecological and
social science techniques to (1) study the ecology and behaviour (movement patterns, food
habits, social organization, ecological function) of elephants in tropical rainforests;
(2) assess the impact of current management, particularly translocation, on the wild
elephant population; and (3) identify alternative strategies for long-term human-elephant
coexistence. Among others, our results show that forest fragmentation by roads results in
complex, often unexpected, changes in elephant movements and diet; that elephant
behaviour affects forest composition through the dispersal of large-seeded trees; and that
translocation is not a long-term solution for HEC mitigation. We are currently proposing a
new conservation strategy based on the combination of wildlife-sensitive land-use
planning, crop protection, economic compensation, and education, to promote human-elephant
coexistence in Malaysia. This project is a good example of the need for holistic and
interdisciplinary approaches for wildlife conservation in the Anthropocene as well as the
importance of bridging the science-policy gap through collaboration between conservation
scientists and practitioners. Peninsular Malaysia can afford to conserve its elephants in the
long-term but important changes in people’s behaviour are needed for this to happen.

Keywords


Interdisciplinary conservation, Asian elephants, megafauna, tropical Asia, ecological function, human-wildlife conflicts

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