Here’s an unlikely story. You build a house, a home for your family. You have a nice road leading to your house. Then you decide you would like to plant some vegetables, your own little garden to supply nice fresh vegetables for the family. You decide to plant your vegetable garden in the middle of the road to your house. Now, you have to drive around your vegetable garden to get to your home. Nonsensical right? No one in the right mind would do such a thing! Instead, would you not look around your land, decide where the best place for your garden would be, and plant it there?
Well, the old saying “do onto others as you would do unto yourself” apparently doesn’t always apply when we plan how to use land throughout Borneo. For some reason no one seems to understand, we put our towns, roads and vegetable gardens wherever we like. Sometimes we think of others, but sometimes we don’t. This is the biggest problem faced by Borneo’s wildlife in the past 20 years.
It is a common misconception that our jungles are wild and disorganized places. Animals are running all over the place, with no rhyme or reason. This is not true. Animals use the forest, their home for thousands of years, in a very ordered fashion. They follow fixed paths, which if you followed them, you would find that these are often the best ways to climb a hill or cross a ridge. These are known as animal trails, and if you are not wandering around oblivious to the forest, you would be able to see them. Years of use make them very defined paths. In fact, most of the forest trails used by people over the years were animal trails first.
Animals know their forests much better than we do. They know where the fruiting trees are, and when they fruit. They know the best places to cross rivers. They know where their kitchens are, where they keep their salt. The larger the animals, the more apparent these ancient animal roads are.
Elephants are the largest animals on Borneo, and they have followed their elephant roads for generations. People who live in areas with elephants know exactly when the herds come each year, where they walk and when they leave on to their next destinations. This has been the way for centuries.
Now comes the vegetable gardens, placed here and there, sometimes right in the middle of the elephant road. What do the elephants do now? Walk around them, or walk through them as they follow their ancient roads? Well, if they walk straight through the gardens, people get angry, and start chasing them away. Get out of my garden! If they walk around the gardens, they start to get lost, because they have never taken this road before. They end up in kampungs, in towns and in other people’s gardens.
The result of this “displacement” of animals, like elephants, is called human-wildlife conflict. Lost families of animals come into contact with humans, and all sorts of troubles begin. People are scared of large elephants, and elephants are even more scared of people. Lost herds sometimes get split up, with individual elephants unable to find their families, young babies left wandering without their mothers and starving to death. Damage to property also happens, with elephants crashing into homes and gardens. All in all, this becomes a messy situation, and more often than not, the elephants are killed, or caught and transferred to other places, far away from their families.
The question that we on Borneo should be asking ourselves is whether this is avoidable? Can we do the things we need to do on our island without breaking homes and families? Can we build our roads and towns in such a way that the ancient animal roads are not broken? Can we co-exist with our incredible wildlife on Borneo?
It boils down to this – how much to we value our wildlife? Are they important enough to us that we take a little extra effort to make sure our development doesn’t affect them negatively? How difficult is it to find out where the elephants are, and then plan our development around their homes and roads? Is this impossible to do? Well, once we decide that this is indeed not an impossible task, Borneo will be rid of its ever increasing problems of wildlife and human conflicts. No elephants need to die. Let all families on Borneo remain unbroken.