Inspiration

An Eco-Tour Helping Save Sabah’s Elephant Population

In a palm-oil plantation in Sabah, an unlikely eco-tourism alliance paves the way for Borneo pygmy elephants.

By Marco Ferrarese
Photographed by Kit Yeng Chan and Shavez Cheema

Jan 1, 2020

WHEN A LOUD TRUMPETING drowns out the noise of our car, we all freeze, hearts thumping. “I told you—there’s not a single time I haven’t found them,” says our guide, Shavez Cheema, with a winning grin across his face. Before I can prise my fingers out of the sides of the pick-up truck, Shavez has already jumped out, taken a couple of steps towards a thicket, and crouched down on the valley floor to scope out where the pachyderms are hiding. Soon a second, deeper, trumpet emanates from beyond the trees ahead of us and we see them coming. It’s a mother with her child—the baby walks softly behind her, holding her tail with its little trunk. We watch the two animals in awe as the last of the sun burns an electric halo around their silhouettes, blending the dark ivory of their tusks into the surrounding foliage.

Our driver, Jamaluddin Pase, gets out of the vehicle and reaches Shavez to make sure we all keep a safe distance from these beautiful wild things. We aren’t allowed to make contact, so we observe them from afar until darkness descends like a black drape and we drive back to our accommodation, speechless. Here in southeastern Sabah, the hilly outskirts of Tawau are a hotspot of Borneo pygmy elephant activity, where three herds of the baby-faced behemoths total as many as 80 individuals.

But today’s tour is no ordinary elephant safari. The “jungle” is actually a palm oil and timber plantation belonging to state-owned Sabah Softwoods Berhad (SSB), and the tour, Plant4BorneoElephants, is part of an out-of-the-box attempt to protect its endangered residents. Launched by local volunteer group 1StopBorneo Wildlife, of which Shavez is founder, it is the first eco-tourism initiative in Borneo to involve a working plantation. It’s an important development given recent episodes of violent poaching that have shed elephant blood on other Tawau estates—but desperate times call for desperate measures.

“It’s 2020 and we have to adapt and come to grips with reality,” Shavez says. “There is no one, single strategy to save wildlife, so we decided to try this new, dynamic approach. Believe it or not, Sabah Softwoods cares very much about elephants and the environment.”

Habitat loss due to the construction of roads and highways—and oil and timber plantations—has put Sabah’s wildlife in dire straits. Shavez explains that many pygmy elephants in Borneo are forced to live on plantations because they can’t find enough space and food elsewhere. Compounding the issue is the destruction of wildlife corridors, preventing elephants from migrating freely between what forests are left. Enter Shavez’s tour. While the main attraction is the elephant safari, guests also spend a morning planting saplings along a corridor that, in five to 10 years, will connect the plantation to the nearby Danum Valley Conservation Area, one of Sabah’s last remaining wildernesses. Revenue from Plant4BorneoElephants funds SSB’s nursery project, where the saplings for the project are grown.

Safaris set off in the evening. Seated in the back of Jamaluddin’s pickup, guests whiz along gravel roads that snake through hills covered in regimented rows of trees. Elephant sightings are not guaranteed, but Jamaluddin knows the grounds like the back of his hand—he skirts the bends with confidence, slowing down whenever the vegetation becomes thicker, always scanning for signs of elephant passage. Afterwards, guests retreat to a charming wooden cottage on plantation grounds, lined with double rooms and set in front of an Olympic-sized pool surrounded by swaying palms. Its large veranda serves as a social area, and the scrumptious meals—all home-cooked with ingredients sourced from the plantation’s greenhouses—are served in a quiet dining room next to the kitchen, as if you’re lodging at a friend’s tropical country homestead. Sometimes in the evening, a curious elephant or two comes down to the main road, strolling casually around the cottage as if to welcome guests personally.

The morning after our mother-and-baby sighting, I’m out in the plantation again—this time with a shovel, breaking the soil bit by bit. I glance at the stands of young trees growing around us and I’m reminded why I’m here, sweat pouring down the back of my neck, with a sapling wrapped in plastic at my feet. Kit, our photographer, helps me place the sapling in the hole, and we pour dark soil over its roots, making sure it’s firmly planted.

There’s hope that, like this sapling, the project will grow into something bigger. Shavez tells us he is con dent that Plant4BorneoElephants can establish eco-tourism as an alternative source of income for the plantation, and act as a role model for other local players.

As we flatten the earth around that little tree—part of what will be a mighty green highway to elephant freedom—a faraway trumpet rises above the canopy, sending joyous chills down our spines.

To book a Plant4BorneoElephants tour, contact Shavez and the Plant4BorneoElephant team at 1stopborneo.org or 1stopborneo@gmail.com; one-night, two-day tour RM900 per person.

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