Getting down and dirty with Sabah’s wildlife rescuers (VIDEO)

WRU acting manager and chief vet Diana Ramirez checks on a rescued baby Borneo Pygmy Elephant before releasing it back to the wild. — Picture courtesy of Scubazoo
WRU acting manager and chief vet Diana Ramirez checks on a rescued baby Borneo Pygmy Elephant before releasing it back to the wild. — Picture courtesy of Scubazoo

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KOTA KINABALU, April 5 – From rampaging elephants to saving pangolins from the pot, Sabah’s Wildlife Rescue Unit (WRU) has seen a lot of action in the past seven years.

However, their job resolving human-wild animal conflict has largely been under the public radar until recently, when their adventures became the fodder for a new online TV series called Borneo Wildlife Warriors.

The webseries is finally shining a light on the monumental tasks these guardians of the Borneo jungle face as they work round the clock to save lost, injured, trapped and other distressed fauna that may be found anywhere in the 72,500 km2  state, which WRU acting manager and chief veterinarian Diana Ramirez said the team has been trying to do over the years.

Dangers and rewards

“All the rangers and vets have to go through intensive training because animal trapping needs a lot of skill and teamwork. Everyone must be strong and reliable,” Ramirez told Malay Mail Online in a recent interview.

“For instance, in crocodile or elephant trapping, it is like a big Jenga stack. If one piece of Jenga is loose or comes out, everything will fall apart. Similarly, we can’t have a single team member fall apart. Thankfully in my seven years here, it has never happened to me.

WRU operations officer Benjamin Kotiu said a good ranger has to be knowledgeable about handling wildlife, be willing to work hard, dedicated, patient and above all, have nerves of steel.

“I don’t think anyone who works in this field has not been bitten before. Its part of the job. I’ve been bitten by macaques, snakes, slow lorises, gibbons, turtles, civets you name it.

“We also have to be ready to have animals come charge at you, especially when you release them. You’d think they would be happy to be able to run into the jungle to freedom but sometimes they turn around and attack the people who released them instead,” he said.

He recalled one encounter a colleague had with a hostile bull elephant near a swamp. The colleague was able to escape unscathed by dodging the elephant as they circled around a tree, until the animal gave up.

“You have to always be prepared before going into a situation. Usually we are but in this case he did not realise there was a swamp behind him,” said Kotiu, a senior ranger.

“The job obviously comes with a big danger factor but it also has its perks, you also get the opportunity to get up close and personal with such beautiful and unique animals and see their amazing behaviour,” he said.

He and Ramirez remembered the time in the jungle when they encountered a protective baby elephant while trying to approach two adult elephants that had been hit with tranquilizer darts.

“The baby elephant charged at us and wouldn’t let us near them. We waited for awhile, it seemed like it had gone, but when we approached it, it came charging out of the forests again but this time he had brought some other juvenile elephants – his friends. We couldn’t barely believe it, who would’ve thought that it would bring its gang.

“We waited again. By now it was night fall and we couldn’t see it over the hill. We approached the two elephants again and wouldn’t you know it, it came at us again, this time with an even bigger herd, with adult elephants as well. We thought it was so funny, even as we were running away to safety,” he laughed.

The moments are golden and very memorable but for most of the team, the biggest reward is nursing an injured animal and releasing it back into the wild.

“The feeling we get after maybe days, months or years of keeping an animal after a rescue from danger or injury or from a conflict area. The trouble you go through, the sleepless nights and the care you invested... it is all worth it to see the animal released back into the wild. I don’t think there is a more rewarding feeling,” said Ramirez.

Ben Kotiu (centre) with Borneo Wildlife Warrior show host Aaron. — Picture courtesy of Scubazoo
Ben Kotiu (centre) with Borneo Wildlife Warrior show host Aaron. — Picture courtesy of Scubazoo
A growing team and growing incidents

From four rangers and just one vet in 2010, the WRU—an extension of the Sabah Wildlife Department that is privately funded—has expanded to a team of 24 rangers and four veterinarians today.

The increase is fitting as the number of cases are also on the rise. In 2010, the team handled only 53 cases. By 2015, they were handling six times as many cases. Last year, the team had an all time high of 352 cases.

“The figure has risen steadily over the last few years. There are several reasons to explain this. The main one is probably habitat loss and fragmentation of the forests which causes the animals to wander into human areas. The other is a change in awareness,” said Ramirez.

Sabah is the largest producer of palm oil in the country and such production means massive scale land clearing. This inevitably increases human-wildlife conflicts as animals stray into plantations and villages after losing their jungle homes or are trapped.

“The animals are getting increasingly closer to humans and plantations because of the development that’s happening to their habitat. We will likely continue to see more of this happening as development will not stop,” she said.

Since it started, the unit has dealt a lot with rescuing and relocating macaques; 70 per cent of their total case number or 1,984 cases involve these primates. This is followed by saving 247 elephants or 9 per cent, then snakes. Other rescues range from orangutans, sambar deer, monitor lizards, sun bears, turtles, crocodiles, pangolins, slow loris and and proboscis monkeys.

“Many of these were kept as pets. This often stems from a lack of awareness. People come across these wild animals in the wild, abandoned or orphaned and think they’re cute and end up keeping them.

“Keeping some wild animals here is illegal but most of all, it harms the animal and they will be unable to survive in the wild later,” said Kotiu.

Many of Sabah’s wildlife can also be found for sale at the many tamu or open markets, and they are sometimes sold discreetly at pet shops.

Hope for change

Over time, and with a lot of education, the awareness for Sabah’s protected wildlife have increased. WRU has been getting calls from people giving up the animals they took in after finding out what they did was wrong.

While that gives Ramirez some hope, there are many other threats—poaching, trafficking and illegal hunting—that the rescue unit and the enforcement authorities cannot seem to get a handle on.

“The Wildlife Rescue Unit does what it can, everything from animal rescue, handling, veterinarian services to education and awareness, but we are not law enforcers. We need a lot of support from everybody to really protect our wildlife,” said Ramirez.

The unit is based out of two places, Lok Kawi, in Kota Kinabalu on the west coast and Sandakan on the east coast. Their staff have to cover the entire 72,500 km2  that is Sabah and the logistics of this can get complicated; imagine having to transport a three-tonne elephant from an oil plantation.

The unit is fully funded by the Malaysian Palm Oil Council under its conservation fund. The council recognised in 2010 the need to have a balance between development and wildlife conservation.

The costs run into about RM100,000 per month for salaries, allowances and operational costs alone. However, the amount is now insufficient as the team needs to expand and upgrade their equipment. They are also tending to more animals.

“As Sabah continues to develop, we foresee more problems, more new situations never seen before, more species never seen before and more calls than ever before. I think we will need to expand and have sub divisions to increase our capabilities,” said Ramirez.

“Right now, we make do with what we have. We get help from the plantations and villagers and we manage. But there is a lot of room for improvement,” she said.

“I know it’s a dream to think we can stop development and clearing of lands. But we have to live in balance with what we have, let’s not be greedy, we already have a lot, let’s not keep going until we have nothing left.

“If we have to, let’s have better management and find a balance. Follow the advice of people in the area. Don’t start development in a known elephant crossing area, just moving it a few kilometres either side could make a huge difference to the wildlife,” she said.

To find out more about the WRU, catch the third episode of Borneo Wildlife Warriors on SzTV here.

If you are interested in contributing to the WRU, find out how here.

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