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An elephantine challenge
Published on: Sunday, August 27, 2017

George Magner 'HUMAN-wildlife conflict is a real, everyday problem here in Sabah."

Aaron Gekoski is a breezy, effervescent character, but as our conversation turns to the subject at the heart of his work, his tone grows grave. Better known as Bertie, Gekoski has made it his life's work to pursue and report on the wonderful and the worrisome in nature. But even for this veteran journalist, the ever-increasing tension between animals and their human neighbours fills him with concern.

It was this concern that led him to his most recent assignment: in trying to get to the heart of the story in the ongoing human-wildlife conflict, Bertie has embedded himself in the very team of conservationists he has reported on for years: the vets, rangers and scientists who make up the Wildlife Rescue Unit (WRU).

Bertie's Toughest Task But nothing prepared Bertie for perhaps the toughest task he has ever undertaken: his first field mission, sent with a WRU team into a vast palm oil plantation in the remote south of Sabah, to track, capture and relocate a full-grown bull elephant.

Acting head of the WRU, Dr Diana Ramirez, has been involved in elephant issues through her time in Sabah.

"Elephants are well known as a nomad species," she tells me. "Some herds have been passing their route down from generation to generation, but now that the landscape used by elephants has changed due to land conversion for human development, we encounter what we know as human-elephant conflicts."

The WRU are no stranger to elephants; the Borneo Elephant Sanctuary and Sepilok's elephant orphanage are two examples of the team's innovative approach to handling elephants caught in human habitation zones.

But these are ultimately second-tier solutions – to see the WRU really flex its muscles, one must witness an elephant relocation.

Elephant Removals Inc Elephant relocation is one of the flagship duties the WRU undertake. As habitats are placed under ever-greater pressure by humans, elephants are seen in every greater frequencies: wandering farmland, timber camps, rubber and oil palm plantations; even straying close to villages in their in-satiable search for food.

"Since its creation in 2010, the WRU have rescued and translocated more than 250 elephants throughout Sabah," Dr Diana said. "As long as the usual elephant habitat continues to shrink and become fragmented this will contribute to increasing human-elephant conflicts."

Answering the Call There is no easy part to an elephant relocation. When the call comes in that one has been sighted, the team has to assemble its materials and drive to the location; the travel itself can take a day.

Getting to the site, however, is straightforward compared to getting to the elephant itself.

As Bertie discovered, tracking an elephant through Borneo's hilly uplands takes standards of navigation to a whole new level.

"It's an involved process that utilises all of your senses," Bertie said. "You learn what an elephant smells like, the sounds they make, the visual markings they leave on trees, roughly how old their dung is, what direction they're moving due to their footprints – the WRU's rangers have been doing this for many years".

It takes years of experience to follow an overstimulated, hungry, frightened elephant through the forest.

WRU Ranger Hasni Koungin is well acquainted with the challenges. "After receiving the report from workers and villagers, we have to go from where the last sight of the elephants was, to start following the tracks".

"It is not a easy job!" Marcelleno Anik finishes the sentence. "WRU rangers have to utilise every kind of skill, from animal psychology to public relations, working through the invaded territory, sometimes also giving advice and lessons to the villagers on how to act if an elephant come close". Marcelleno and Hasni have long worked together as rangers, and it is plain that they share a love for their job. "We love to do this! Although we are aware that this is a very dangerous duty, we enjoy it too. Each operation is different depending on the size of the herd, attitude of the animal and topography of the area, but our target is the same; sedate and move the elephant to a new location where they can be safe".

When Bertie was offered the chance to join the relocation team, he seized the opportunity.

The initial search took several days; remarkably, at one point the team was within a shot of the elephant, only for it to turn tail and disappear in-to the bushes. Seeing an elephant is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for many people. Seeing one in the wild is a rare and special privilege. To see a wild elephant disappear noiseless into its surroundings defies belief. "He was very wily!" Bertie laughs, "constantly outsmarting us."

However, disaster came worryingly close when Bertie's tracking skills went awry.

"When chasing the elephant through the jungle, Dr Pakee and I became detached from the rangers.

It can be very disorienting being in the jungle. We were there for probably 10 hours and had no food or water left".

Bertie's mistake had serious implications – while Marcelleno, Bertie's fellow ranger, had kept on the elephant's tail, without Pakee's skills with the sedative gun they had no means of preventing the elephant from escaping.

Another day was lost; the team was exhausted and demoralised.

Reliving that day, you can see the tiredness and stress stencil itself into Bertie's features.

"I've been an environmental photojournalist for the best part of a decade and have been on some mad adventures around the world, but this was one of the most hardcore of all".

How does the story end? Did Bertie redeem himself? Was the elephant saved?

Keep reading next week for the second half of the story.

The Wildlife Rescue Unit (WRU) was created in 2010 in response to an urgent need to address human-wildlife conflicts and conservation issues in Sabah. The WRU is the brainchild of the then Director of the Sabah Wildlife Department, Dr. Datuk Laurentius Ambu, and the Assistant Director, wildlife veterinarian Dr Sen Nathan. Presently, the unit is fully sponsored by the Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC). Currently the unit is headed by its acting manager Dr Diana Ramirez; with 23 staff, the WRU has the responsibility to assist the wildlife department in: human wildlife conflict is-sues, animal rescue and translocations, enforcement, public awareness and other duties.

SZtv is the original productions from Scubazoo, based in Kota Kinabalu.

For over 20 years, Scubazoo has been making world-class wildlife documentaries about Sabah, its inhabitants and its uniquely luscious landscapes – above and below the water!

In series two of Borneo Wildlife Warriors, we rejoin presenter Aaron "Bertie" Gekoski as he continues his journey into the heart of wildlife conservation in Borneo, training to become a ranger with the Wildlife Rescue Unit.

In their latest episode, Bertie joins Wong and Dr Pakee at BSBCC, to give Sigalung the Sun Bear his annual medical check.

This 6-part series premieres Aug 16 with new episodes released every Wednesday on SZtv's website, YouTube and Facebook.

All episodes have Bahasa Malaysia subtitles and will also be aired on Daily Express and Malay Mail.

For more information, check out Borneo Wildlife Warriors on SZtv.

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