Didn’t your mother teach you to share?

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Young ElephantAs far as the eye can see, over mountains, through valleys, every inch, oil palm plantations all the way to the sea. Identical trees stand in recurring rows repeated over and over across the landscape. There are over 148 million square kilometres of land available on Earth yet not enough habitat for endangered wildlife. When there is plenty to go around, why can’t we share?

Part of the beauty of collaborative research projects is the
sharing of information and expertise. Every day at base camp, researchers and students from around the world exchange ideas. We assist each other day in and day out, sharing our thoughts and experiences in the lab, in the field and over the dinner table: the best way to assess species abundance over mee goreng. And even after the longest, hottest days trekking through the jungle helping me to
find elephant poo, our invaluable research assistants who are local Orang Sungai traditional fishers, catch fish and giant river prawns for communal meals. So while we can share everything with our colleagues and friends with open minds and hearts, why all around us is there evidence of an inability to share our planet with wildlife?

The elephants we are tracking are squeezed into a small,
isolated patch of secondary forest. All day and night trucks laden with tonnes of oil palm kernels roar down the road through the reserve, honking loudly to scatter the elephants. Crowded along the riverbank feeding, they stand in the hot sun unable to enter the water as tourist boats circle like vultures and a ferry belches black smoke into the air. Litter is strewn about and some of the elephants attracted by the strange aromas swallow plastic. The group starts to cross the river to reach another tiny forest fragment on the opposite bank. But mothers cannot cross. Their young are too small to brave the water. Women and children are usually the first to be evacuated in an emergency but in this conservation emergency, it appears that elephant mothers and calves are not spared.

Outsiders can preach against palm oil until they are black and blue. If it were possible, consumers could boycott products (which are innumerable and in some cases, unlabelled). But these actions are unlikely to have any real impact on the palm oil industry, entrenched here in the economy and society, with diversified interests, eager buyers the world over and every reason to continue refusing to share. Would you share if by sharing you might have fewer homes, jobs, schools, playing fields and mosques for yourself, your family and your community? Moreover, would you share if the reward for not sharing was billions of dollars in your bank account?

The value of arguments in favour of sharing space with elephants is in the eye of the beholder. For example moral arguments or even economic rationales based on the tourism revenue or ecosystem services provided by elephants might be deemed priceless by conservation scientists but worthless by planters who are reaping the benefits of habitat conversion or locals who are scared because an elephant has wandered past their homes (an elephant who incidentally has nowhere else left to go).

Elephant troopDespite the apparent challenges in finding common ground between the palm oil industry and wildlife conservation, it is still conceivable that there exists a meeting ground upon which a compromise can be met, where all parties’ needs can be satisfied. The challenge is the difference between needs and wants. If needs can be prioritised over wants, there may be a future yet for elephants in Borneo. A compromise deal to restore some habitat connectivity might meet all needs but perhaps not all wants (perhaps only one shiny new BMW rather than five). The elephants’ needs for space and resources to survive could be met while also fulfilling needs for employment and healthy corporate revenue.

Arguably, as the logging and palm oil industries began here relatively recently in the 1980s, an equilibrium between man and elephant in Malaysia existed up until very recently. For example, in Machang, peninsula Malaysia, villagers had not seen crop raiding elephants for the past fifty years but with accelerated logging over the past few years incidents of human elephant conflict have been reported this year.

It might take forever to understand all the complex social, economic, cultural and scientific complexities of the conservation dilemma posed by palm oil but the elephants don’t have that much time. At the end of the day, what they need is for us to just to share, to give and take rather than just taking and taking and taking. Giving some habitat and resources back to the elephants and other wildlife would not mean the end of multibillion dollar industries such as timber or palm oil. The future of profits and employment would be just as secure. The only difference would be that we would share this secure future with unique wildlife found nowhere else on earth.

The problem is not that there isn’t enough to go around. It’s that we’re not sharing what is available. What will it take to persuade us to share?

- Stephanie Hing


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