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1 January 2020 Rapid Expansion of Oil Palm Is Leading to Human–Elephant Conflicts in North Kalimantan Province of Indonesia
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Crop raiding by Bornean elephants (Elephas maximus borneensis) is increasing rapidly in North Kalimantan, mainly due to a rapid conversion of swiddens and secondary forest into oil palm plantations. In the Tulin Onsoi subdistrict, the area used by oil palm plantations has grown from 3,302.71 ha in 2001 to 21,124.93 ha in 2014. Particularly from 2006 to 2010, the area covered by oil palm plantations increased rapidly (418%). Preventing further encroachment of oil palm plantations in elephant habitat and regulating land use change are keys to stop further population declines and make way for the reestablishment of a viable elephant population in Kalimantan. Crop raiding is a strong determinant of the local people’s perceptions of elephants and risks eroding cultural values that enabled people to coexist with elephants. People’s perception and attitude toward elephants are generally negative. Nevertheless, negative attitudes have not led to cases of retaliation in the Tulin Onsoi subdistrict. Public education at the community level could strengthen cultural values and foster coexistence between humans and elephants.

Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) are the largest living land mammal in Asia and are found in 13 range countries nowadays. There are presently four subspecies of Asian elephant recognized, that is, Elephas maximus indicus in mainland Asia, Elephas maximus maximus in Sri Lanka, Elephas maximus sumatrensis in Sumatra, Indonesia, and Elephas maximus borneensis in Borneo. Recent estimates indicate a population size of 30,000 to 50,000 Asian elephants (Riddle, Schulte, Desai, & van deer Meer, 2010), although their numbers are declining due to fragmentation and destruction of their habitat. Around 2,000 Bornean elephants (Elephas maximus borneensis) are estimated to be left in the wild, of which the majority is found in Sabah (Alfred, Ambu, Nathan, & Goossens, 2011). The species is however severely threatened by habitat loss, degradation, and fragmentation (Choudhury et al., 2008). Since 1986, Elephas maximus has been listed as an endangered species (EN) on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Global Red List (2016). The elephant population in the Sebuku forest in North Kalimantan is contiguous with the elephant population in the Kalabakan Forest Reserve (FR) as part of the elephant range in the central forest of Sabah (Riddle et al., 2010). The population is shared between two countries (Malaysia and Indonesia) and holds slightly more than 330 individuals (Alfred et al., 2011). The suitability of the Sebuku area (about 49,500 ha), which is occasionally visited by 20 to 60 elephants (Alfred et al., 2011; Wulffraat, 2006), needs further investigation. Under Indonesian Law (Government Regulation Nr. 7/1999), the Bornean elephant is also listed as an EN (Noerdjito & Maryanto, 2001).

Changes in land use have brought fierce competition for space and resources between people and wildlife in Southeast Asia (Clements et al., 2010; Kinnaird, Sanderson, O’brien, Wibisono, & Woolmer, 2003; Nyhus & Tilson, 2004), and elephants are particularly vulnerable to land use change (Hedges et al., 2005; Leimgruber et al., 2003; Rood, 2010; Rood, Azmi, & Linkie, 2008; Saaban, Othman, Yasak, Burhanuddin, & Zafir, 2011). On the Indonesian island of Sumatra, the development of oil palm (Elaeis guineensis) and rubber plantations has forced elephants to increasingly compete with humans for available space (Nyhus, Tilson, & Sumianto, 2000; Rood, 2010; Sitompul, 2011; Sitompul, Tyson, Caroll, & O’brien, 2010). The human–elephant conflict (HEC) may result in injury and death of humans, damage to crops and infrastructure, and lead to negative attitudes toward elephants among local people (Fernando et al., 2005; Hedges et al., 2005; Nyhus et al., 2000).

Land use change in Borneo is mainly driven by the expansion of large-scale oil palm plantations (Gunarso, Hartoyo, Agus, & Killeen, 2013; Sheil et al., 2009; Wicke, Sikkema, Dornburg, & Faaij, 2011). Oil palm plantations in East Kalimantan1 increased from 116,887.5 ha (since 2000) to 1,102,632 ha (since 2013; East Kalimantan Provincial Government, 2015). Within the framework of the government-supported “one million hectares of oil palms” program since 2002, oil palm plantations have been established in the Nunukan District, North Kalimantan (Bureau of Estate of East Kalimantan, 2015; East Kalimantan Provincial Government, 2015). The Sebuku area, a part of Tulin Onsoi subdistrict (Figure 1), is currently one of the main target areas of the provincial oil palm plantation program (Bureau of Estate of East Kalimantan, 2015). As the Sebuku subdistrict, together with the subdistricts of Sembakung and Lumbis, are quickly becoming the main centers of the oil palm plantation program, conversion of large parts of the Sebuku forest into oil palm is ongoing and therefore considered as the major threat to the local elephant population (Wulffraat, 2006).

Figure 1.

Map of the study area showing the Tulin Onsoi subdistrict, North Kalimantan Province and the area that has been allocated for oil palm plantations where human–elephant conflict incident exists.


The Asian elephant has a specific significance in the region’s history, religion, and folklore, which makes it a potential flagship species for forest conservation (Fernando et al., 2005; Nyhus et al., 2000). However, HEC can undermine these cultural values and erode local support for conservation efforts (Hedges et al., 2005). In most cases, the total costs of crop raiding are relatively low, but its impacts on individual farmers can be significant (Naughton-Treves, 1998). Incidents of poisoning and electrocution of elephants are increasing as local people attempt to protect their livelihoods (Perera, 2009). Severe conflicts with oil palms farmers in the Malaysian state of Sabah in February 2013 resulted in the poisoning of 14 Bornean elephants (Hance, 2013). In 2005, the Kalimantan population of Bornean elephants drew the attention of the government when local media reported on a few incidents of solitary males that had entered village gardens and disturbed crops in the Sebuku area (Wulffraat, 2006). This study identifies patterns and trends in HEC in the Tulin Onsoi subdistrict, specifically in relation to the rapid development of oil palm plantations. The study provides a description of current land use changes and analyzes how HEC influences local people's perceptions of and attitudes toward the conservation of the Bornean elephant.


Study Area

This study was conducted in the Tulin Onsoi subdistrict (split from the Sebuku subdistrict since 2011), which is part of the Nunukan District of North Kalimantan Province (Figure 1). The Sebuku forest is one of the most species-rich forests of Borneo in terms of botanical diversity (Jepson, Momberg, & van Noord, 2002). However, the forest was logged in the 1990s. Between 1996 and 2003, primary forest decreased from 915,183 ha to 697,695 ha, a 24% decline in 7 years (Lusiana, Shea, & van Noordwijk, 2005; Widayati, Ekadinata, & Syam, 2005).

This study focused on 10 villages in the Tulin Onsoi subdistrict, inhabited by indigenous Agabag Dayak: Balatikon, Tau Baru, Tinampak II, Tinampak I, Salang, Naputi, Tembalang, Kalunsayan, Sekikilan, and Semunad (Figure 1). Around 3,650 people inhabit these 10 villages (Profil Daerah Kecamatan Sebuku, 2013). The predominant livelihood strategy in these villages is small-scale subsistence farming, nowadays complemented with wage labor for oil palm companies. Crops grown in the area are cassava (Manihot esculenta), the staple food crop of Dayak Agabag, rice (Oryza sativa), corn (Zea mays), legumes, coconut (Cocos nucifera), banana (Musa spp.), sugar cane (Saccharum officinarum), vegetables, fruits, and spice trees.

Two main oil palm estates are operating in the Tulin Onsoi subdistrict: the Karangjoang Hijau Lestari Group and the Tirtamadu Sawit Jaya Group, with, respectively 20,000 and 7,892.18 ha of oil palms (Bureau of Estate of East Kalimantan, 2015). Most oil palm is cultivated in a so-called Nucleus Estate and Smallholder (NES) scheme. In this scheme, villagers transfer a proportion of their land to an oil palm company in return for financial compensation (Rist, Feintrenie, & Levang, 2010). In other cases, people sell their land directly to a company.

Data Collection and Analysis

Land use and land cover change

Remote sensing techniques were used for quantifying land use and land cover changes. Both ground truthing (in February–April 2014 and March–April 2015) and remotely sensed satellite images acquired from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) Earth Resources Observation and Science Centre at (LANDSAT TM, path 117 row 57) were used for this purpose. Land cover images for the years 2001, 2006, 2010, and 2014 served as a reference to evaluate oil palm land coverage.

We used a land use classification approach based on multistage visual techniques, using ER Mapper v. 7.1 and ArcGIS v. 10.2.2. Following the land use categories defined by Indonesian Ministry of Forestry (MoFRI, 2008), 10 land-cover categories were identified: upland forest, shrubland, oil palm plantation, dry cultivated land, road network, water bodies, swamp forest, open area, settlements, and mixed tree crops (MoFRI, 2008). Change matrices were created by comparing maps from different time lines pixel by pixel to identify small-scale changes. Patterns in land use change in the study area were also determined through interviews with village heads, traditional leaders, and village elders in the 10 villages of Tulin Onsoi subdistrict.

HEC survey

We used several social scientific methods to assess HEC and document local people’s perceptions of and attitudes toward elephants (Table 1). Household surveys were carried out between January and April 2013 using a prestructured questionnaire (Table 2). Questions were written and asked in Bahasa Indonesia. The presented results only include interview data for which the respondents have given their consent. Surveys consisted of a systematic sample of 214 households in 10 villages of Tulin Onsoi subdistrict. Between 31.7% and 84.8% (average = 56.8%) of the households in the 10 villages were sampled. The Agabag represent 77% of all respondents.

Table 1.

Data Collection Techniquesa Used for the HEC Assessment in the Tulin Onsoi Subdistrict.


Table 2.

Summary of the Questionnaire Used in the Interview Survey.


For yes/no questions (Questions 12–14; Table 2), we performed a logistic regression analysis (Freedman, 2009; Soto-Shoender & Main, 2013), with the ethnic group, age, educational background, year of residence, and prior elephant crop damages as independent variables. The odds of an affirmative answer were modeled to each question for all categories of respondents. Statistical significance was calculated using the Wald χ2 statistic. Statistical significance was calculated at p < .05 for all analyses using SPSS v. 23.0.


Land Use Changes

The multitemporal analysis spanning from 2001 to 2014 shows a rapid expansion of industrial-scale oil palm plantations in the Tulin Onsoi subdistrict (Figure 2ad). From 2006 to 2010, the area covered by oil palm plantations increased significantly (418%; Table 3). Seventy-seven percent of these oil palm plantations were converted from the upland forest.

Figure 2.

(a) 2001 land cover map of Tulin Onsoi subdistrict. (b) 2006 land cover map of Tulin Onsoi subdistrict. (c) 2010 land cover map of Tulin Onsoi subdistrict. (d) 2014 land cover map of Tulin Onsoi subdistrict.


Table 3.

Land Cover Classes and Their Surface Area in Tulin Onsoi Subdistrict From 2001 to 2014 (Total Land Size Approximately 153,000 ha).


In addition to the intensification of several forms of land use (Table 3), a general shift in cultivation practices was observed. Between 2001 and 2006, traditional slash-and-burn agriculture adjacent to rivers and streams (the “mixed tree and crops”) was gradually replaced by “dry cultivated land” which is characterized by an open area with herbaceous vegetation intensively managed for row crops and associated with road networks and human settlements. This was confirmed through our interviews; 52.7% of the respondents indicated that they had changed their traditional farming system to practice sedentary farming instead and had integrated oil palm in their farming systems at the time of the interview compared to 6.6% before 2005. The majority, however, transferred their land to the oil palm company in the NES scheme (32.5%) or sold their land directly to the company (14.8%).

The cultivation of important food crops has decreased, such as cassava (from 64.3% to 43.4%), legumes (28.1% to 13.8%), vegetables (17.1% to 9.1%), and rice (21.4% to 7.1%). Insufficient revenue from their traditional crops was given as the main reason for this general decline (54.7%). People stressed they needed to earn more money and were forced to look for alternative incomes. Other reasons mentioned were government incentives, including local cultivation schemes that provide with seeds and fertilizers to farmers (23.1%), estate incentives that offer a profit-sharing scheme (7.4%), and the proximity to an oil palm mill (7.4%). Some disincentives were mentioned as well, specifically crop raiding by elephants (7.4%).

Elephant Sightings and Crop Raiding

70.6% of the respondents had seen elephants in the wild at some time in their lives. 14.8% had only ever seen indirect evidence of their presence, that is, tracks, trails, dung, or damage caused by elephants; 14.6% had never seen an elephant. A single individual was observed surrounding village areas in most cases (68.8%) confirming that only solitary bulls raid oil palms (Figure 3). Villagers indicated to observe two peak periods during which elephants visit their village: February–March and August–October. One or two family groups were reported in the vicinity of three main rivers: Apan, Agison, and Sibuda in the Sebuku Forest (Figure 1). There is no information of elephant groups that move south of the Tulid River, where most villages are located.

Figure 3.

Two solitary males of Bornean elephant were spotted during the fieldwork in Semunad village, the Tulin Onsoi subdistrict (left) while feeding on wild bananas and while crossing the river (right; photos by Rachmat B. Suba [author] [left] and Arie Prasetya [right].


According to the respondents, elephants rarely visited the cultivated lands surrounding the villages before the start of the oil palm program in 2002. Since then, the number of crop-raiding incidents has consistently increased (Figure 4). Of the 215 elephant sightings, 49.3% occurred in villages with oil palm plantations (Tembalang, Kalunsayan, Sekikilan, and Semunad) and 18.6% occurred in villages that are surrounded by other crop types or natural habitat (Salang, Naputi, Tinampak I, Tinampak II, Tau Baru, and Balatikon). According to the respondents (n = 176), oil palm is by far the most frequently raided crop by elephants (59%). When villagers (n = 213) were asked about the reason why they thought elephants enter their fields, 51.3% would refer to some kind of habitat loss, for example, “elephants are looking for food,” “the forest has been depleted,” and “the forest has been destroyed by the oil palm estates.”

Figure 4.

Reported frequency of elephants’ crop-raiding incidents in 10 villages of Tulin Onsoi subdistrict based on interviews.


Traditional Beliefs and Attitudes Toward Elephants

Historically, elephants have played an important role in cultural heritage and local traditions. In local stories, elephants would, for instance, lead people that are lost in the forest back to their homes. Elephants are said to be God’s creation and regarded as guardians of humans. Elephants are often called grandparents (“yaki” for male or “yadu” for female) not only as a sign of respect but also because people believe that they descended from elephants. Attempts to observe elephants in the wild are nevertheless considered to be disrespectful, which proved to oppose a few challenges during the present research.

43.2% of the respondents expressed an outright negative attitude toward elephants, with “loss of crops” (15.5%) as the main motivation for this negative attitude. 79% of all respondents say that oil palm expansion is the main cause of HEC. About 21% also mention logging operations in the area as a cause of HEC. They claim that logging operations have destroyed some of the natural salt licks in the area and disrupted elephant movements in the Sebuku Forest.

32.4% of the respondents believe humans can live in harmony with elephants but only under certain conditions (Table 4). 43.2% believe coexistence is difficult as elephants raid crops. Affirmative answers to our questions regarding human–elephant coexistence are significantly influenced by crop damage (p = .008). The odds of affirmative answers to whether elephants and humans can live together in harmony were 2.53 times higher for people whose fields were not damaged by elephants (Table 5).

Table 4.

Percentage of Responses (Yes, No, and Don’t Know) to the Question Whether Elephants and Humans Can Live Together in Harmony and the Elaborated Explanation or Requirement.


Table 5.

Logistic Regression Analysis, With Wald χ2 Statistical Test, for Answers to Survey Questions 12, 13, and 14 (N [total respondents/households] = 213; n = affirmative answer].


73.8% of the respondents answered “yes” to the question “do you know that elephants are protected by local customs or rights?” Dayak Agabag are significantly more knowledgeable on elephant protection legislation than other ethnic groups (p = .004 and p = .02, respectively; Table 5). The odds of an affirmative answer to whether they knew about local customs or rights and laws for elephant protection were 3.84 and 4.80 times higher, respectively, for Dayak Agabag as opposed to other ethnic groups. Although the majority of respondents are supportive of elephant conservation in the Tulin Onsoi subdistrict, they claimed that it is currently not directly benefitting them. Most respondents acknowledge that elephants are an integral part of their culture, but people also mention that elephants are causing problems, for example, “the elephants are giving us a hard time nowadays” and that these problems should be tackled by government: “If government wants to protect elephants, it should implement measures to prevent them from raiding our crops.”


Negative perceptions of elephants are mainly caused by crop damage. This is supported by Kellert, Black, Rush, and Bath (1996) who mention that attitudes toward wildlife may be influenced by past and present interaction. In line with this, human and elephant coexistence in the Tulin Onsoi subdistrict was historically enforced through traditional shifting cultivation systems that allowed for resource partitioning (see Fernando et al., 2005; Kumar, Mudappa, & Raman, 2010; Pastorini et al., 2013). Between 2001 and 2014, the total land area covered by oil palm plantations in the Tulin Onsoi subdistrict increased more than five times, from 3,302.71 ha in 2001 to 21,124.93 ha in 2014, leading to increased elephant crop-raiding incidents. As a result, HEC has become a significant problem in the Tulin Onsoi subdistrict and attitudes toward elephants have become negative, despite the deeply rooted respect for elephants throughout history. Efforts to save the elephant and its habitat in the future depend on a local support (Fernando et al., 2005; Nyhus et al., 2000). HEC can hinder efforts to save the species (Infield, 1988), although negative attitudes toward elephants have not yet led to cases of retaliation in the Tulin Onsoi subdistrict. People do worry about the costs associated with damage by elephants and are frustrated about the lack of measures that would protect them from the “government’s animals.”

Providing the needs of elephants from inside their habitat requires restoring habitat and food resources (Oelrichs, Lloyd, & Christidis, 2016). Therefore, to effectively protect the Bornean elephants and to avoid more severe HEC, it is, therefore, essential to prevent further expansion of oil palm plantations. Improving oil palm yield through better management practices could reduce pressure for expansion (Sheil et al., 2009). Maintaining “buffer zones” between forested areas and human agricultural fields is suggested to aid in the mitigation of HEC (Rood et al., 2008; Perera, 2009). In the Tulin Onsoi subdistrict, such buffer zones have been assigned at 100 m buffer on each side of the Tulid River (according to the Presidential Decree No. 32/1990 about Management of Reserved Areas). Although mostly degraded, the shrublands and secondary forests of these buffer zones contain a variety of potential food plants for elephants, such as bamboo, wild bananas Musa borneensis, and grasses Saccharum spontaneum (personal observation; Figure 5). Such plant species could thus serve as “lure” plants (Nyhus et al., 2000) to switch elephants’ attraction from raiding agricultural fields. Local conflict mitigation efforts should, therefore, include management of these buffer zones, thereby ensuring that any type of cultivation will be prohibited in such areas, although complicating factors linked to Indonesian legislative issues regarding land ownership and compensation (Fredriksson, 2005) would have to be tackled. While paying compensation could increase the tolerance level of local farmers toward elephants, it is open to considerable abuse (Tchamba, 1996). Successful implementation of any compensation scheme entails careful monitoring of the economic value of crop losses by elephants (He, Wu, Zhou, & Dong, 2011; Zhang & Wang, 2003) to avoid overestimation of crop damage.

Figure 5.

Degraded forest landscapes dominated by wild bananas in the Tulin Onsoi. Subdistrict could benefit elephants living on the forest—nonforest interface [photos by Rachmat B. Suba (author)].


The timing of crop raiding and its relation to environmental factors are also important considerations in the design of effective short-term strategies to mitigate HEC (Chiyo, Cochrane, Naughton, & Basuta, 2005). By knowing this, early warning and vigilant response can be applied in community-based guarding systems to reduce HEC (Hedges & Gunaryadi, 2009; Oelrichs et al., 2016). Efforts by WWF-Indonesia to deter elephants from crop raiding in the Tulin Onsoi subdistrict using noise cannons made of bamboo filled with carbide (Figure 6) have shown promising results and could thus be integrated into future HEC mitigation strategies. Using a special local elephant control team has shown to be effective in minimizing crop damage during elephant visits to village areas in the Sekikilan village (WWF-Indonesia Kalimantan Program, 2011). Although this method is widely used, it requires specialized training and well-regulated night watch shifts to minimize the risks that arise from direct confrontations with elephants.

Figure 6.

Bamboo cannons filled with carbide are used to deter elephants in the Tulin Onsoi subdistrict.

Source. WWF-Indonesia Kalimantan Program.


Fostering cultural values that enable people to live in close proximity to elephants could help to support elephant conservation (Fernando et al., 2005). Education as a tool in the prevention of HEC (Fernando et al., 2008; He et al., 2011; Jayewardene, 2011; Zhang & Wang, 2003) could assist local mitigation efforts. Reinvigorating the local traditional knowledge and perceptions on elephants could at least serve as a basis to reinstate a sense of common responsibility for the protections of elephants.

Implications for Conservation

Our study shows that crop raiding by elephants is a significant and growing problem in the Tulin Onsoi subdistrict. Effective mitigation measures are urgently required and if local support fails to actually target the villagers’ concerns, attitudes toward elephants could become even more negative and fear could turn into frustration. Traditional beliefs and local knowledge values will then no longer protect the elephants. Our study reveals that the local people generally have a good knowledge of elephant behavior and the legislation under which elephants are currently protected. The majority of respondents are supportive of elephant conservation in the Tulin Onsoi subdistrict although they feel frustrated about the absence of any government incentives.

Preventing further encroachment of oil palm plantations in elephant habitat is a key to stop further population declines and make way for the reestablishment of a viable elephant population in Kalimantan. Hence the Indonesian Government (national and local) assisted by conservation organizations should ensure that policies that regulate land use change are compatible with the conservation of the Bornean elephant. The recently developed “Conservation Strategy and Action Plan of Bornean Elephants” includes promising ideas on collaborative protection efforts between the regional government and policy makers in the Nunukan District (The 2011 Workshop on Conservation Strategy and Action Plan of Bornean Elephants in Nunukan District).


The authors are grateful to Mulawarman University (Samarinda, Indonesia) for the administration procedure and study permit for Rachmat B. Suba. The authors would like to thank the field assistants (Arie Prasetya, Toni Salsius, Raymoon Silaban, Sanjaya, and Juanisa Andiani) who provided us support during the fieldwork and interview. The authors are grateful for all the local villagers for logistical support and helping in the data collection. The authors are also grateful for Dr. Chandradewana Boer, Ir. Ibrahim, and WWF-Indonesia East Kalimantan Program as well as Dr. Benoit Goosens of Danau Girang Field Center in Sabah for their advice. Professor Peter van Bodegom, Institute of Environmental Sciences (Leiden University), and Professor Gerard Persoon, Faculty of Social and Behavioral Sciences (Leiden University), provided helpful comments on manuscript draft. Finally, the authors would like to thank Dr. Barbara Croes for her service in revision of the English language.

Declaration of Conflicting Interests

The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.


The author(s) disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article: The authors would like to thank Indonesian Ministry of National Education and Culture (through DIKTI scholarship/DGHE (Directorate General of Higher Education) and Institute of Environmental Sciences (CML), Leiden University, The Netherlands for supporting the study and providing a doctoral scholarship and a completion scholarship for Rachmat B. Suba. This project was also partially supported by funds to Rachmat B. Suba from NEF (Nagao Environmental Foundation), Japan.



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