The Spanish peacemaker in the land of Asian elephants | Science

In a village in Sri Lanka, a group of Asian elephants destroys 20 of the 400 small, solid houses that make up the town. The waste landscape impresses. The pachyderms, arisen from the humid forest, have collapsed the brick walls of the homes attracted by the smell of rice stored in sacks. People scream while a few neighbors shoot into the air. This is how the Spanish ecologist remembers Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz, settled in Asia for more than fifteen years, one of the episodes of the tense coexistence between humans and wildlife. The conflict between farms and the survival of endangered species such as elephants is the field of work of this renowned researcher of wildlife in Southeast Asia.

In the confrontation for life between humans and elephants, for those who live in a large capital, where the problem is far away, the easy thing is to empathize with the latter. But the work of this professor at the School of Environmental and Geographical Sciences of the University of Nottingham in Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia), of Zaragoza origin and raised in Galicia, goes far beyond mere good intentions. "A lot of empathy is needed to understand that people need to benefit from conservation. If they do not see it as theirs, it will never work. For many cultures, the elephants are like people, they want to live with them but not suffer the consequences of coexistence. We help improve it, making it clear that conflict is necessary. This is an example of how trophic cascades work, and you can use parallels with wolves and other large herbivores to apply similar measures locally, "he says.

To conserve means to work with the communities, the Government, the organizations. A very complex challenge for which no one prepares us

Lover of the pachyderms, as enormous in its scope as in its complexity at the time of working in conservation, Campos-Arceiz, who recently visited Madrid to share about his experience in a conference entitled The challenge of conserving the Asian elephant and another megafauna in the Anthropocene, in the National Museum of Natural Sciences, arrived in Sri Lanka by chance, after a stay in Japan. "A Japanese research group had gotten a very important project in Sri Lanka and was reluctant to send a Japanese student because at that time there was war. I was available and they thought that, as a European, big and strong, I would survive, "he recalls.

During the five years he spent in Sri Lanka as a master's and doctoral student, Campos-Arceiz found the freedom to investigate and a great social conflict regarding the coexistence with Asian elephants that made him aware of the protection of this species as measure to conserve the humid forest ecosystem. "If we want a healthy forest, we must conserve the fauna, and the elephant is vital because of its ecological impact. If you manage to conserve it, you can do it with smaller and less conflictive species. It is an exciting species model, "emphasizes this 43-year-old curator, who dedicated his doctorate to the dispersal of seeds by the effect of the Asian elephant in the humid tropical forest.

Useful science, effective conservation

Then, recognizes this ecologist, despite feeling fulfilled as a researcher, he realized that his work had no local impact. "Despite publishing articles and having international recognition, the local authorities were not interested in my research. It made science disconnected from the real world. He had the best knowledge, but nobody cared, "he recalls.

After changing Sri Lanka for Singapore, where he lived two years of post-doctorate to settle later in Malaysia, in that journey he set out to devote himself to what he calls "useful science", effective conservation. At the same time, the project Management and Ecology of the Malaysian Elephant (MEME, in its acronym in English, a wink to the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins). After meeting with the Malaysian government and presenting the project in 2009, MEME was born as a work tool in a double direction: create knowledge about the behavior and ecology of the elephant and understand the interactions with people.

The objective can not be to eliminate the conflict, but to mitigate it. Not having complaints means not having elephants

Upon landing in peninsular Malaysia, this ecologist was the only expert in an area where there had never been an academic tradition, nor had data of indigenous biodiversity been collected or published. Against this lack, MEME promoted the creation of a local network of experts. "Since 2010, we have had six doctorates and seven master's degrees, most of them with local students, and now we want to dedicate ourselves to disseminating our work and guiding the research to those who design the action strategies, implementing our ideas to make better decisions", says this ecologist , which resides 20 minutes from the office of the director of the department of the wild area. "Presence is very important, you have to earn your trust and be accepted. As a researcher you can have the best knowledge, but if you do not care about the people who have to use it, it does not help, "he says.

In the conservation of Asian elephants, Campos-Arceiz knows that science is only the beginning of a long and expensive work. "To conserve means to work with the communities, with the Government, with the organizations. A very complex challenge for which no one prepares us. You have to move, go to a community and tell them that the elephant is very important. But, then, someone tells you that he lost his father because of the conflict with them, that the animals eat the crops for the next six months ... It is a very slow process that requires patience and a lot of participation ", acknowledges the founder of MEME, which promotes the approach, with an interdisciplinary and active approach, open to dialogue and not traumatizing with errors and initiatives that do not work.

15 years term

The population of wild Asian elephants is estimated to reach 40,000 individuals, two-thirds of whom are India and Sri Lanka. The peninsula of Malaysia, where around 1,500 elephants live, is one of the best enclaves for its conservation in Southeast Asia, although it may collide with the modernity of the twin towers of Kuala Lumpur and the Formula 1. "Malaysia is a country rich in its economy and natural resources, with a fairly stable governance, it is more developed than its neighbors. There is money to do things and less demographic pressure - a third of the population of Thailand and less than a third of that of Vietnam - it has a lot of forest and wildlife (elephants, tigers, leopards), because there has been less poaching historically, although now it is a problem, "observes this ecologist.

The MEME team installs a GPS collar to an elephant in Malaysia.
The MEME team installs a GPS collar to an elephant in Malaysia.

Among the sustainable measures that MEME deploys in its list of priorities in the long term, it is headed to protect the habitat when there is still much unprotected forest, followed by the need to connect the environments. "Forests are like islands, and animals must move between them. We have to create natural multipurpose corridors that allow both agricultural activity and extractions and penetrable landscapes for the megafauna to move, in which the level of conflict is tolerable, "says Campos-Arceiz.

But, how much time has to elapse? This conservative is given as margin 15 years for the project to work. "Otherwise, the forest will fragment more, more animals will be hunted and a situation of no return for tigers and leopards will come. But there is more likelihood of success in Malaysia, "says this ecologist, who confesses optimistic and possibilist. "You have to look for opportunities with a prism of realism. I detect many possibilities to convince the population that effective conservation can be done. Local people always see the negative side of problems, they need to emphasize the opportunities from the outside, but it is up to them to make positive changes. For now, it is very important that the leadership of the MEME team be local. In 2020 I am going to get off the project in a planned and conscious way so that one of the students will direct it, "he concludes.

The conflict as a good sign

The loss of natural habitat - it has been reduced by 70% in 40 years (a decrease of 40-50% of elephants) -, blamed by deforestation in the last century and the continued exploitation of rubber and palm crops, and Problematic coexistence with humans represent the main threats to the survival of the elephant. "In the absence of predators, the elephant's mission is to eat all day. If there are very attractive crops, the elephants attack them because they go for a better menu than in the forest. Here the conflict arises, the people do not tolerate it and it poses a risk of persecution or death, "says Campos-Arceiz, who points to two other critical factors such as poaching - less than in Africa - and the existence of small populations in countries such as Laos, integrated by a couple of families (30 or 40 elephants) that will collapse in the future.

One of the actions of MEME that have transpired is, according to Campos-Arceiz, to have changed the Malaysian elephant conservation paradigm, reflected in the national plan of 2013, in whose committee MEME participates together with representatives of the Government and the States, the university and non-governmental entities. "When I arrived, the priority was not to receive complaints, the absence of conflict. There will always be conflict when there are elephants and agriculture in the same landscape. The objective can not be to eliminate it, but to mitigate it to something sustainable. You have to understand all the parts, but not having complaints means not having elephants. The goal must be coexistence. That there are certain complaints is a good sign, because it means that there are elephants, although it harms crops. It is very uncomfortable for the opposition, but we must mediate not only responding to the interest of the people, but avoiding the human population suffer and at the same time understand that conservation means a certain benefit, "says this ecologist.

In the past, the actions of the Malaysian government were limited to translocations, moving elephants to national parks with artificial steps to avoid conflicts with people, eradicating the families of pachyderms. "There are alternative measures such as thinking about where to farm, out of the way of elephants, or how to protect crops without limiting the movement of elephants. Long-term artificial displacements, as a principal measure, have a very negative impact on a large scale. It is necessary to look for other solutions. Now, although we are very at the beginning, we work to mitigate the conflict with electric fences and with education to the population, and we consider the economic compensation for the damages. It is not about compelling. You can not tell people to hold on because you have to protect the elephants, you have to do something else, "he says.


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