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

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 in 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 and 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 tranquillised and chained to the tree. A wild elephant was then chained between the trained elephants, so that it would follow their lead to walk 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 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

Elephant on Pulau Ubin
In 1991, another wild elephant made its way to Pulau Ubin. On 1 March, a villager encountered the elephant while he was praying at a shrine on the island. The man was hit on the head by the elephant’s trunk and was admitted to Changi hospital for a swell on his forehead and small cuts on his nose and right foot. The elephant was reportedly seen thrice within a 10-hour period. Experts from the Malaysian Wildlife Department were asked by the Singapore Zoo to help capture the elephant.31

On 3 March, two Frenchmen who were on the island for birdwatching sighted the elephant five times. The elephant went after them, causing some light scratches on one of the man’s arms as he fell while escaping. A nearby taxi driver drove off with the two men after the elephant hit the right rear side of his car. Other residents also sighted the elephant as it searched for food near their houses.32

On 6 March morning, a villager informed the police after he sighted the elephant in the north-western part of the island. The hunters managed to track down the animal 40 minutes later. The elephant was then tranquillised and chained to a tree to prevent it from escaping.33

On 9 March, the elephant was transported back to its habitat in the jungles of Johor. It was sedated and chained between the two trained elephants used in the Pulau Tekong incident, then guided onto a truck and later loaded on a barge which carried them back to mainland Singapore. The elephant was released in Endau Rompin National Park in northern Johor.34

29 May 1990: National servicemen spot a family of three elephants while training on Pulau Tekong.35
6 Jun 1990: Malaysian wildlife authorities arrive on Pulau Tekong to help in the capture of the runaway elephants.36
10 Jun 1990: All three elephants are captured and released into the Endau Rompin National Park, Malaysia.37
1 Mar 1991: A villager is injured by an elephant while praying at a shrine on Pulau Ubin.38
3 Mar 1991:
The elephant chases two Frenchmen who visited the island. It also damages a taxi parked nearby.39
6 Mar 1991:
The elephant is caught after a villager notifies the police.40
9 Mar 1991:
The elephant is sent off, and released to the Endau Rompin National Park in northern Johor.41


Nureza Ahmad

1. Rohaniah Saini, “Elephant Affair Shows That S’poreans Do Care,” Straits Times, 18 June 1990, 23; Rohaniah Saini, “Last Elephant Trapped,” Straits Times, 9 June 1990, 24. (From NewspaperSG)
2. Saini, “Last Elephant Trapped.”
3. Rohaniah Saini, “Wanted: Tusk Force to Catch Wild Elephants on Tekong,” Straits Times, 31 May 1990, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
4. Rohaniah Saini, “Praise for Joint Singapore, Malaysia Rescue Team,” Straits Times, 10 June 1990, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
5. Saini, “Tusk Force to Catch Wild Elephants.” 
6. Rohaniah Saini, “Trackers Hot on Trail of Runaway Jumbos,” Straits Times, 7 June 1990, 18 (From NewspaperSG); Saini, “Last Elephant Trapped.”
7. Saini, “Trackers Hot on Trail.” 
8. Saini, “Trackers Hot on Trail.” 
9. Rohaniah Saini, ‘Tame Elephants May Be Used as Lure,” Straits Times, 2 June 1990, 25 (From NewspaperSG); Saini, “Trackers Hot on Trail.” 
10. Lee Chiu San, “Tekong Suitable Site for Elephant Preserve,” Straits Times, 2 June 1990, 34 (From NewspaperSG); Saini, “S’poreans Do Care”; “Elephants Must Be Removed for ‘Own Good’,” Straits Times, 3 June 1990, 16. (From NewspaperSG)
11. Saini, “Trackers Hot on Trail.” 
12. Rohaniah Saini, “Trapped: Two of Tekong’s Three Elephants,” Straits Times, 8 June 1990, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
13. Saini, “Trackers Hot on Trail”; Saini, “Last Elephant Trapped.”
14. Saini, “Trackers Hot on Trail.”
15. Elephants Must Be Removed.”
16. “Elaborate Plan to Capture Strays on Tekong,” Straits Times, 7 June 1990, 18. (From NewspaperSG)
17. “Elaborate Plan to Capture Strays.”
18. Saini, “Trackers Hot on Trail.”
19. “Elaborate Plan to Capture Strays.”
20. Saini, “Tekong’s Three Elephants.”
21. Saini, “Last Elephant Trapped.”
22. Saini, “Tekong’s Three Elephants”; Saini, “Last Elephant Trapped.”
23. Saini, “Last Elephant Trapped.”
24. Saini, “Last Elephant Trapped”; “Operation ‘Jumbo Move’,” Straits Times, 10 June 1990, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
25. “Operation ‘Jumbo Move’.”
26. Saini, “Singapore, Malaysia Rescue Team.”
27. Saini, “Singapore, Malaysia Rescue Team”; “Operation ‘Jumbo Move’.”
28. Saini, “Singapore, Malaysia Rescue Team.”
29. “Jumbo Update: Home Sweet Home,” Straits Times, 18 June 1990, 23; Rohaniah Saini, “Wild Jumbos May Be Moved from South Johor,” Straits Times, 5 April 1991, 31. (From NewspaperSG)
30. Saini, “Singapore, Malaysia Rescue Team.”
31. David Miller, “Hot on the Elephant’s Trail… Again,” Straits Times, 3 March 1991, 18. (From NewspaperSG)
32. Koh Joh Ting, “Ubin Elephant Goes after Two Frenchmen,” Straits Times, 4 March 1991, 20. (From NewspaperSG)
33. David Miller, “Ubin Elephant Caught,” Straits Times, 7 March 1991, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
34. Yohanna Abdullah, “Early Morning Send-Off for Ubin Elephant…,” Straits Times, 10 March 1991, 16. (From NewspaperSG)
35. Saini, “Tusk Force to Catch Wild Elephants.” 
36. “Elaborate Plan to Capture Strays.”
37. “Home Sweet Home”; Saini, “Wild Jumbos May Be Moved.” 
38. Miller, “Hot on the Elephant’s Trail.”
39. Koh, “Ubin Elephant Goes after Two Frenchmen,” 
40. Miller, “Ubin Elephant Caught.” 
41. Abdullah, “Early Morning Send-Off.”

The information in this article is valid as at June 2019 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.


Captive elephants--Singapore