Runaway elephants



For about a week in early June 1990, Singaporeans were captivated by media reports of runaway elephants on Pulau Tekong.1 This was reportedly the first time in recent history that elephants had swum across the Johor Straits to Tekong,2 an island used by the Singapore Armed Forces for military training. The wild Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) were first sighted by national servicemen on 29 May 1990.3 With the collaboration and co-operation of the Singapore and Malaysian governments, the Singapore Zoo, Malaysian wildlife authorities and Tekong army personnel, the bull elephants were captured about a week later on 7 June 1990.4

Description
On 29 May 1990, national servicemen on Pulau Tekong spotted a family of three elephants while training.5 From that first sighting onwards, there was great media attention on the presence of these wild animals on the island. Representatives from local and foreign press, such as the Malaysian New Straits Times, picked up news of this unusual event.6


The three wild elephants had apparently swum 1.5 km across the Johor Straits to reach Pulau Tekong. They were probably dislocated from their natural habitat in the jungles of eastern Johor by logging and forest-clearing activities. Such activities had considerably reduced the natural habitat of elephants, with only an estimated 1,000 wild elephants remaining.7

After the first sighting, the elephants were not seen again for about a week. However, their presence on the island was evidenced by a trail of uprooted coconut trees, trampled grass, foot prints and droppings.8 Elephant damage occurred close to some built-up areas; one such location was a mere 20-minute drive from the island’s jetty.9

In response to calls from the public to leave the elephants alone on Pulau Tekong, the authorities explained that the island, a military training area, was an unsuitable habitat for the animals as they would be frightened by the live-firing exercises and could attack people when agitated.10 Hence, it was felt that it would be best if the elephants were captured.11 As male elephants are difficult to manage during musth, a period when they are sexually active, the Singapore Zoo preferred not to retain them.12 Hence, the plan was to capture them and have them sent to a different location in Malaysia to prevent them from swimming back to Pulau Tekong in the future.13

Within the week, the Defence Ministry put the Singapore Zoo in charge of capturing and translocating the wild elephants.14 The zoo contacted the Malaysian Wildlife Department’s Elephant Capture and Translocation Unit (ECTU) to help in its operation.15 Expert trackers, trained elephants, tranquillisers and heavy security were all part of the elaborate recapture plan.16

The Malaysian wildlife authorities arrived on Pulau Tekong on 6 June 1990.17 They were certain that the elephants were from a herd of seven seen around Pengerang, located on the eastern part of Johor.18 The six-man team from the ECTU managed to track down the elephants by studying the traces – droppings, trampled vegetation and footprints – that they left behind.19

On the morning of 7 June 1990, two of the elephants, both male about 2.3 m tall, were finally recaptured.20 The third male elephant, about 2 m tall, was caught later that afternoon.21 Once the animals were sighted, they were tranquillised and chained to a large tree to prevent them from escaping.22 However, the third elephant ran away when the trackers darted the other two with tranquillisers. Hence, the trackers returned to the forest in the afternoon to look for the third elephant. As expected, this elephant had returned to the spot where the two bigger ones had been chained, and it was subsequently captured.23

Next, the elephants had to be translocated from the island. For this, the Malaysian team used its two trained elephants, Cek Mek and Mek Bunga, and its two lorries.24 The trained elephants were brought to the wild elephants after they had been tranquilised and chained to the tree. A wild elephant was then chained between the trained elephants, and then follow their lead to the waiting lorry. When the wild elephant was loaded onto the lorry, its front legs were tied together to restrict movement while its back legs were tied to the lorry.25 It took over two hours to get just one elephant onto the lorry.26

By the evening of 9 June 1990, two elephants had been loaded onto the two lorries and taken back to Malaysia.27 The third elephant was loaded and taken back to Malaysia the next morning.28 The elephants were given new homes in the Endau Rompin National Park on the border of Johor and Pahang.29

All parties involved in the elephants’ capture and translocation received praise from international conservation groups, such as the Asian Elephant Specialists Group, for their handling of the situation. According to Mohd Shariff Daim, head of the ECTU, the capture of the elephants was made easier by the terrain of Pulau Tekong, which was less hilly than Malaysia. Furthermore, there were many tracks in the forest that allowed the men and vehicles to get close to the wild elephants. He added that the wild elephants seemed to have had a happy stay on Pulau Tekong, enjoying the plentiful food available, in particular their favourite meal of coconut shoots.30

Timeline
29 May 1990: National servicemen spot a family of three elephants while training on Pulau Tekong.31
6 June 1990: Malaysian wildlife authorities arrive on Pulau Tekong to help in the capture of the runaway elephants.32
10 June 1990: All three elephants are captured and released into the Endau Rompin National Park, Malaysia.33



Author

Nureza Ahmad



References
1. Rohaniah Saini. (1990, June 18). Elephant affair shows that S’poreans do care. The Straits Times, p. 23; Rohaniah Saini. (1990, June 9). Last elephant trapped. The Straits Times, p. 24. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
2. Rohaniah Saini. (1990, June 9). Last elephant trapped. The Straits Times, p. 24. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
3. Rohaniah Saini. (1990, May 31). Wanted: Tusk force to catch wild elephants on Tekong. The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
4. Rohaniah Saini. (1990, June 10). Praise for joint Singapore, Malaysia rescue team. The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
5. Rohaniah Saini. (1990, May 31). Wanted: Tusk force to catch wild elephants on Tekong. The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
6. Rohaniah Saini. (1990, June 7). Trackers hot on trail of runaway jumbos. The Straits Times, p. 18; Rohaniah Saini. (1990, June 9). Last elephant trapped. The Straits Times, p. 24. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
7. Rohaniah Saini. (1990, June 7). Trackers hot on trail of runaway jumbos. The Straits Times, p. 18. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
8. Rohaniah Saini. (1990, June 7). Trackers hot on trail of runaway jumbos. The Straits Times, p. 18. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
9. Rohaniah Saini. (1990, June 2). Tame elephants may be used as lure. The Straits Times, p. 25; Rohaniah Saini. (1990, June 7). Trackers hot on trail of runaway jumbos. The Straits Times, p. 18. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
10. Lee, C. S. (1990, June 2). Tekong suitable site for elephant preserve. The Straits Times, p. 34; Rohaniah S. (1990, June 18). Elephant affair shows that S’poreans do care. The Straits Times, p. 23; Elephants must be removed for ‘own good’. (1990, June 3). The Straits Times, p. 16. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
11. Rohaniah Saini. (1990, June 7). Trackers hot on trail of runaway jumbos. The Straits Times, p. 18. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
12. Rohaniah Saini. (1990, June 8). Trapped: Two of Tekong’s three elephants. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
13. Rohaniah Saini. (1990, June 7). Trackers hot on trail of runaway jumbos. The Straits Times, p. 18; Rohaniah S. (1990, June 9). Last elephant trapped. The Straits Times, p. 24. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
14. Rohaniah Saini. (1990, June 7). Trackers hot on trail of runaway jumbos. The Straits Times, p. 18. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
15. Elephants must be removed for ‘own good’. (1990, June 3). The Straits Times, p. 16. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
16. Elaborate plan to capture strays on Tekong. (1990, June 7). The Straits Times, p. 18. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
17. Elaborate plan to capture strays on Tekong. (1990, June 7). The Straits Times, p. 18. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
18. Rohaniah Saini. (1990, June 7). Trackers hot on trail of runaway jumbos. The Straits Times, p. 18. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
19. Elaborate plan to capture strays on Tekong. (1990, June 7). The Straits Times, p. 18. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
20. Rohaniah Saini. (1990, June 8). Trapped: Two of Tekong’s three elephants. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
21. Rohaniah Saini. (1990, June 9). Last elephant trapped. The Straits Times, p. 24. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
22. Rohaniah Saini. (1990, June 8). Trapped: Two of Tekong’s three elephants. The Straits Times, p. 1; Rohaniah S. (1990, June 9). Last elephant trapped. The Straits Times, p. 24. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
23. Rohaniah Saini. (1990, June 9). Last elephant trapped. The Straits Times, p. 24. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
24. Rohaniah Saini. (1990, June 9). Last elephant trapped. The Straits Times, p. 24; Operation ‘Jumbo Move’. (1990, June 10). The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
25. Operation ‘Jumbo Move’. (1990, June 10). The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
26. Rohaniah Saini. (1990, June 10). Praise for joint Singapore, Malaysia rescue team. The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
27. Rohaniah Saini. (1990, June 10). Praise for joint Singapore, Malaysia rescue team. The Straits Times, p. 3; Operation ‘Jumbo Move’. (1990, June 10). The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
28. Rohaniah Saini. (1990, June 10). Praise for joint Singapore, Malaysia rescue team. The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
29. Jumbo update: Home sweet home. (1990, June 18). The Straits Times, p. 23; Rohaniah Saini. (1991, April 5). Wild jumbos may be moved from south Johor. The Straits Times, p. 31. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
30. Rohaniah Saini. (1990, June 10). Praise for joint Singapore, Malaysia rescue team. The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
31. Rohaniah Saini. (1990, May 31). Wanted: Tusk force to catch wild elephants on Tekong. The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
32. Elaborate plan to capture strays on Tekong. (1990, June 7). The Straits Times, p. 18. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
33. Jumbo update: Home sweet home. (1990, June 18). The Straits Times, p. 23; Rohaniah Saini. (1991, April 5). Wild jumbos may be moved from south Johor. The Straits Times, p. 31. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.



The information in this article is valid as at 2004 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

 

Subject
Captive elephants--Singapore
Science and technology>>Zoology>>Animal behaviour
Nature>>Animals
Wildlife
Events