The initial stage of the job was tough, especially when I had to shovel away about 100 kg of elephant dung to clean their enclosures. But it was something I knew I was capable of doing with some determination. As my experience in cleaning elephant cages grew and the elephants started warming up to me, I was ready to approach them. My role expanded from cleaning cages to training these wild elephants. Handling wild elephants is very risky – there have been moments when I have been injured on both arms. But with enough patience and proper care, we were able to connect with the wild elephants.
I still remember we would be bathed with elephant dung, urine and mud at the end of each day. We would simply wear long pants without a shirt to avoid wasting water when washing our clothes.
My early experiences with wild elephants have taught me the basic rules of approaching these gentle giants. I joined WWF-Malaysia as the first person to track elephants in Sukau at the time. I was tracking more than 70 wild elephants and travelling around the forests to familiarise myself with the area and with the wild elephants habituating the area. It was during this time that I was able to learn about GPS mapping.
Getting the wild elephants to accept me into their herd was tough and required much patience, but as I spent more time with them, they slowly recognised my scent and existence. The day that they fully accepted me as a friendly figure gave me a feeling that I will never forget – it felt special and is something that I will cherish for a long time to come. Through that, I was able to recognize their behaviour and even gave them names for easier recognition.
I followed the herd for about a year travelling from Abai to the Kinabatangan Bridge in Bt Putih. It took another year following them after their stop at Bt Putih. However, it was that year which I found most challenging.
There was a time when the WWF-Malaysia team and I were trapped in the forest without food. For survival at night, we had to drink water from puddles in the dark. There was no sleep or rest and we felt as if we were bitten alive by mosquitoes. The night air was freezing and our only shelter was up in the trees. We were not allowed to spend much time on the forest floor and were afraid of many dangers, including attacks from snakes and crocodiles.
When daylight finally arrived and we were able to look around us, we saw that the puddle of water that we drank from the night before was filthy and it tasted stale in our mouths. We travelled in hip-deep water and had to rely solely on walkie-talkies; we hoped that the batteries would not die on us.
Luckily, we managed to contact other colleagues and directed them to where we were. They managed to find us and the whole office, concerned for our safety, came to visit us after our return. I feel very blessed that we did not encounter any serious dangers in the forest.
My time spent with the wild elephants was not entirely fun. There were times during tracking that we found elephants shot in the forest. There is a particular incident that I will always carry with me. At around 7:00pm one evening, a group of us heard a baby elephant crying from a distance. We immediately charged towards the direction of the cries and found him. I ran towards him and found he was shot by the people residing in the area. It was heart breaking to see that it was the same cheeky baby elephant that liked to spend his time with me as I recorded data on their behaviour. Sadly, he died.
We left the site to collect tools at our campsite to make a report. However, when we went back, we found that the local community had burned the carcass of the baby elephant. I felt anger, sadness and frustration. How could anyone do this to an innocent infant? We spoke to the local communities involved and explained that these wild elephants were endangered and should an elephant come into close proximity with them, they should approach any wildlife agency to ask for advice. They were educated on the importance of having these elephants in our forests.
Another incident prominent in my memories was the time I received a call to look for a baby elephant who had an injured leg. This elephant was about two years old. In about three days, we found the baby elephant in bad condition. I had to take care of the elephant for four days before we were allowed to move him to a safer location. The baby elephant had a torn ligament in his leg which caused an infection. Unfortunately, he did not survive. During the autopsy, it was revealed that he had consumed rope and cigarette packets. It saddened me to think that the consequences of human actions have caused this baby elephant to suffer drastically.
The experiences that I have had with these wild elephants throughout the years have reinforced my passion to protect this wonderful species.
Engelbert Dausip, Senior Programme Assistant,
Species Programme, WWF-Malaysia