FACING off an irate elephant can be an occupational hazard for Dr Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz, conservation ecologist and principal investigator of the Management & Ecology of Malaysian Elephants (MEME).
“The elephant was supposed to have been sedated!” he exclaims with a rueful laugh, recalling the incident.
The elephant in question was located in the dense part of the rainforest in Gua Musang where vegetation grew thick and impenetrable with only one little entrance to get in or out.
Together with a group of wildlife officers, trying to fit in that little space shared with the mammoth creature was a tight squeeze. “We were trying to check the collar on the elephant,” he explains.
Asian elephants live at greater densities in lowland forests below 300 metres. They move mostly in secondary forests with an annual home range of about 300 square kilometres. This makes tracking these animals across the vast forest landscape difficult.
“It is a challenge to study elephants in the wild,” he concedes. To get around that problem, researchers like Ahimsa have fitted elephants with telemetry collars that sent signals to an orbiting satellite. He can now track these animals for a year or more as they move around the forest. Still, it is risky work — sedating and putting a collar on a full-grown elephant can be dangerous, as he would soon find out.
As they approached the still elephant (“We thought it was still sleeping!”) to check on its collar, it suddenly moved, ears flapping in agitation. Pandemonium ensued as people scrambled towards the singular entrance to get away from the irate beast.
Unfortunately for Ahimsa, the entrance was too far away for him to make an escape. He ran towards the opposite direction with the elephant in tow, and hid behind a tree.
“I was crouching behind a tree while the elephant looked for me!” he recounts, chuckling. He could hear his thundering heart as the elephant tried to reach for him with its trunk.
“I had never been so scared,” he admits. The elephant eventually gave up and lumbered deep into the forest.
After a while, the men from the Wildlife Department returned and cautiously called out: “Ahimsa... Are you okay?”
He laughs again at the recollection, remarking dryly: “They were not confident that I was alive!” They later celebrated his survival with a durian feast. “That’s when I had my first Musang King,” he reveals, not without a little pride.
You like durians? I ask, surprised. “I love them!” he replies, grinning.
It’s not quite the story I want to hear as we’re navigating the undulating trails deep within the jungles of Ulu Muda in search of elephants.
The trees press close together, and I can’t help but think that what lies behind them could be danger lurking in the form of a herd of angry elephants.
But Ahimsa serenely walks on, breezy and lithe as he points excitedly at places that show signs of elephant activity. Mounds of elephant dung, disturbed vegetation and markings on the barks of towering trees — these are enough to bring a glint to the Spanish scientist’s eye.
After all, to study the elephant is to fall under its thrall. Elephants loom large, both physically and psychologically, and the people who study them and work with them become their lifelong advocates.
“They are fascinating creatures,” he murmurs as he traces the deeply etched grooves on the bark of a nearby tree with his finger. “See this?” he points to the grooves. “The elephant used this tree to scratch its back!” He then proceeds to move his back against the tree trunk, imitating the elephant and we laugh heartily, the fear of irate pachyderms lurking nearby temporarily forgotten.
It’s a fine day to be traipsing through the Ulu Muda forest with Ahimsa leading the way. Organised by Water Watch Penang and MEME, the Ulu Muda media advocacy trip aims to introduce the many wonders of this swathe of forest located in Kedah, as well as highlight the importance of forest biodiversity and ecosystem services.
The 160,000 hectares of Greater Ulu Muda, located along Kedah’s eastern interior border with the Thai province of Yala, comprise several forest reserves including the Ulu Muda forest reserve which is the largest at 105,000 hectares.
With lowland, hill and upper hill dipterocarp forest cover, Ulu Muda forest reserve is an important site of Malaysia’s mega fauna including elephants, tigers, leopards and tapirs.
FROM SPAIN TO SRI LANKA
Elephants were the furthest on his mind when he was growing up in the city of Galicia, Northwest Spain.
“I wanted to be a cell biologist,” confesses Ahimsa. But his love for nature, his solitary trips up to the mountains and encounters with wildlife soon had him changing his area of focus from biology to the science of wildlife.
“I enjoyed being in contact with nature and I realised I didn’t want spend my time cooped up in a lab,” he admits.
Ahimsa eventually worked as a consultant in wildlife back in Spain before deciding to pursue his post-graduate studies at the University of Tokyo in Japan. In 2001, he went to Iriomote, a sub-tropical island off the coast of Japan where he first fell in love with the tropics.
“It was a lovely place with sub-tropical rainforest and a big river… simply beautiful,” he recalls fondly.
He had wanted to study the endangered black rabbit that thrived near Iriomote and tried to unsuccessfully raise funds for his work.
“It was about the same time when my professor offered me the chance to travel to Sri Lanka to study elephants instead. I jumped at the opportunity and said yes without even knowing much about the country!” he says, laughing.
“A lot of things happened by chance,” he admits. “You can try to plan and map out your life but you need to be open to opportunities and grab whatever that comes if it’s attractive enough.”
He did his Masters, he tells me, in human-elephant conflict.
Sri Lanka is one of the world’s most threatened biodiversity hotspots and is an important example of the struggle developing nations have with exploitation of their natural resources, at the cost of precious endemic fauna and flora.
The clearest example of this is in the increase of human-elephant conflict which claims the lives of approximately 50 people and 100 elephants each year across the country.
Back then, he admits knowing nothing about elephants.
“I went to Yala and Udawalawe and experienced what it felt to live with this wildlife,” he says, telling me he witnessed how communities struggled to co-exist with elephants.
“I saw what happened whenever an elephant entered a plantation. People had to chase it away. I had never seen anything like that before,” he recalls.
On his first trip, Ahimsa found himself on a tractor with his Japanese professor and a local, chasing an elephant that entered a sugarcane plantation.
“I never imagined I’d be riding on a tractor chasing after an elephant with locals throwing firecrackers at it!” he says, shaking his head at the memory.
Witnessing the conflict from a close angle changed his perspective about conservation. “When an elephant is headed towards you and eats or damages your crop, you need to defend your livelihood,” he says, adding: “It was an eye-opener to understand that while finding ways and compromises that could help both sides to coexist.”
A PASSION IS BIRTHED
After obtaining his Masters, Ahimsa decided to continue his elephant research, this time focusing on seed dispersal by elephants.
Elephants, he points out, eat abundant amounts of fruit when available. The seeds pass through their guts and, after expelled — sometimes tens of kilometres down the trail — sprouts a new plant if conditions are right.
This process is known as “seed dispersal” and recently, researchers have begun to document the seed dispersal capacity of the elephant, proving that this species may be among the world’s most important tropical gardeners.
“It dawned on me that not only were forests important for elephants, the elephants were equally as important to the forest,” he says, adding emphatically: “This lightbulb moment became the reason why I decided to focus on elephant research.”
It was at the point when Ahimsa understood that a forest without the elephants was an impoverished forest. Elephants shape the landscape and promote forest regeneration — trampling the soil, eating and modifying the structure of vegetation, and releasing plant parts that are consumed by herbivores, he elaborates.
His research on seed dispersal didn’t make waves, he observes drily. After being in Sri Lanka for about five years, he realised that going through elephant excrement for information wasn’t exactly the kind of science people were keen on.
“I was one of the few researchers whose thesis was literally full of shit!” he quips, laughing uproariously before turning grave again. “It was a humbling experience. Here I was, a young man full of pride and self-importance but no one really cared!” He realised that it simply wasn’t enough to just do good science, but as he would put it, “…one had to do useful science.”
Useful science meant more than just data collection. It is a way of perceiving and practising science and of transforming science — its processes and its results — to deal with societal issues facing the 21st century.
“What we did had to be meaningful to the real world,” he stresses.
PASSING ON THE KNOWLEDGE
His research soon brought him to Malaysia. After studying the kind of human-elephant conflict in this country, along with the Department of Wildlife’s approach to conservation and management of this keystone species, Ahimsa soon found a window of opportunity where he could continue to work with elephants.
In 2010, he submitted his proposal to set up MEME, a collaboration between the University of Nottingham and Department of Wildlife and National Parks of Peninsular Malaysia (Perhilitan) to develop an evidence-based approach to the conservation of Asian elephants in Peninsular Malaysia. “…again using the integrative science approach which involved engaging with decision-makers, local communities and the general public,” elaborates Ahimsa emphatically.
As we come across another fresh batch of elephant dung, Ahimsa signals his student to take a sample.
From researcher, he’s evolved to becoming a mentor to a batch of young conservationists who are keen on following his footsteps. “I love being a teacher,” he enthuses, “it’s very fulfilling!”
As his student carefully measures the width of the dung, Ahimsa is content to stand aside and watch her studiously take notes. “I’m close to being redundant now that we have our very own Malaysian elephant experts,” he tells me confidentially with a wink.
What MEME does, he says, is to train a generation of environmental science experts, besides conducting elephant research and generating data that will facilitate evidence-based conservation.
He confides that he plans to step down from his position as principal investigator in MEME by the end of the year, “…to make way for a new generation of conservationists to take the lead.”
Does he plan to go back home to Spain? “No! I love Malaysia!” he declares. “I came here as an ecologist and right now, my research has evolved to something far more complex, involving biology, ecology right up to governance, economics, sociology and culture.”
What he’s learnt in Malaysia, he stresses, continues to be useful. “I feel I have a sense of purpose, and as long as I feel this way, I’m not going anywhere,” he says, smiling.
Later in the afternoon, we come across a herd of elephants. On the hillside opposite, four elephants keep a benign eye on the handful of humans temporarily sharing their forest home.
It’s an unsettling experience for most except for the elephant scientist. He smiles enigmatically, looking right at home in a place thousands of kilometres away from Galicia, Spain. As long as elephants roam free in the wild, Ahimsa is content to share their space for a little while longer.