By DR MELVIN T. GUMAL
It is 5:08 in the morning (Feb 17), and a video of elephants walking in the forests is in a loop in my head.
On the table is my diary with a cover matted with elephants and a thin metal coin engraved with an elephant, given to me by my daughter as a Christmas present.
Elephants kept popping into my head as the night before, I had read a newspaper article describing how at least 15 Malaysian elephants had been killed and a group of seven poachers had been apprehended by the Department of Wildlife and National Parks and the Malaysian Army. During the arrest, trucks, explosives and a cache of guns, including high-calibre rounds, were seized.
A lot has been said about orang utans, tigers and even our reclusive pangolin – the “most hunted animal on earth”.
In Africa, the killing of elephants created such a huge uproar that even British and US politicians got involved in the campaigns.
But what of our reclusive Malaysian elephants? I suspect after the initial anger generated by the arrest, the plight of our forest elephants will not be highlighted again even though they are hunted, or removed from the wild and translocated as they are considered a hindrance to society’s push for developing industrial, monoculture plantations.
Data also shows us that translocations do not always work and in some instances, the animals return to their original homes, but this is rarely mentioned in the media or considered when development appears to be threatened.
Elephants have always been the giant in the room that is ignored. Their roles in seed dispersal and helping to maintain the biodiversity and the regeneration of seedlings in the forest have been well documented.
Even when science shows the importance of elephants in the ecosystem, they do not often get a sympathetic hearing. Only in some recent Disney movies like Jungle Book are elephants seen as such huge helpers to humans, when they changed the flow of the river to thwart the fires ravaging the forests.
The word “Dumbo” – given as a name to a young elephant in a 1940s Disney production – has serious negative connotations. Unfortunately, these negative connotations continue to be linked to elephants.
Our forests and seas are the natural entities that yield oxygen. They are part of the water cycle where water is taken from the sea via clouds and falls as rain into our catchments which then form our drinking water.
We are explicitly linked to nature regardless of whether we want to be climate deniers, developers or hard-headed, greedy poachers.
I bet all of these folks did what I and many other parents did when the haze engulfed South-East Asia in the past few years.
We opened our children’s bedroom doors and sneaked in to check if our children were breathing normally. Their survival during those arduous times depended on a singular primal requirement – air. We craved for fresh air for them.
Yet when the haze cleared, we continued in our hard-headed pursuit of land clearance via burning – potentially the worst enemies of clean air.
This brings us back to our wildlife and our forests. We need both the wildlife and our forests for our survival.
In a recent survey on the future of our environment in 2050 (presented at a Universiti Malaya workshop in February), 451 youths, young professionals and experienced environmentalists were interviewed. Our future appears grim to all of them.
We live in one of the most biologically diverse countries in the world. We still have quite a few iconic wildlife around us. But rhinos and banteng have disappeared from our forests too.
If we are not careful, tigers and elephants may disappear from our forests.
What needs to be done? We need to start internalising that the environment is important. Forget about those developed countries that belittle the environment. We live in the places where acrid smoke engulfs us. We need to do something about it.
Citizen action for conservation has often been seen as an elite activity. Science is now showing us that citizen action and conservation education do have a prolonged impact. It changes society as those who are involved can see why the environment is important and they change their ways.
What else is important? Enforcement is clearly important. How many times have you rushed through the red traffic lights but slowed down when you see a police car? We are all by nature, non-altruistic. We want, we demand and where we can, we hope to get away with it.
Kudos to the Department of Wildlife and National Park enforcement rangers and the Army for going out in the rain and for conducting patrols. Kudos to the researchers who spend days on end with minimal facilities to understand our wildlife and their requirements.
But ultimately we need you, the reader, the consumer, the policy-changer.
The consumer must be made to understand that we need our forests and our wildlife. They must understand that their decisions to consume or not consume, use or not use wildlife parts, buy sustainably-sourced or non-sustainable resources, can make a difference.
I am gob-smacked that a recent Huffington Post publication indicated that elephant tusks are now being made into chopsticks for sale in markets in Asia, including Singapore and Hong Kong. If Singapore and Hong Kong are the drivers of consumption, as a nation state, surely the authorities and consumers could be made to understand that killing wildlife will ultimately harm themselves as they need fresh air (not haze) and fresh, non-toxic water.
We need to look at ourselves. The wildlife needs us. The forest needs us. The wildlife rangers and the foresters need us to help them protect our heritage and make them proud that they are helping save our wildlife and natural world.
We need to internalise the environment, be it the forests, the wildlife or our seas. Our environment needs heroes. It needs individuals like you who are reading this to care. It needs individual and collective physical action.
Dr Melvin T. Gumal is the Director of Malaysia Programme, Wildlife Conservation Society.