Since the start of this year, ten endangered Borneo pygmy elephants have been found dead in the forests of Sabah in Malaysia and wildlife officials suspect poison is the cause.
In mid-January, the bodies of four elephants were initially found in the Gunung Rara Forest Preserve. Then, four more were discovered dead or dying the week after while oficials said that two “highly decomposed elephant carcasses” had also been found earlier in the year.
The elephants were from 4 to 20 years old. Seven were female and three male. A three-month baby elephant was found beside its dead mother, trying to revive her.
Some elephants in Sabah, which is located on the Malaysian island of Borneo, have been killed for their tusks. But officials said that the ten dead elephants bore no sign of gunshot injuries wounds — an indication of poaching — and all still had their tusks. The elephants all appear to be from the same family group. They had suffered severe hemorrhages and ulcers in their gastrointestinal tracts; according to officials, if they were poisoned, it was not necessarily intentional.
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Pygmy Elephants Need the Forests But Developers Want the Land
Malaysia’ Environmental minister Masidi Manjun said the discovery of so many dead pygmy elephants is a “sad day for conservation and Sabah.” His words resonate: Fewer than 1,500 pygmy elephants remain, the result of their jungle habitat being destroyed to make way for plantations of palm oil, rubber and timber, as well as for human settlement. Indeed, over the past half-century, 40 percent of the forest cover of Sabah has been lost.
It was only in 2003 that DNA testing confirmed that Borneo pygmy elephants are a distinct subspecies. They are found mainly in Sabah and grow to be about eight feet tall, with babyish faces, long tails and straight tusks. They are said to be of a more gentle disposition than other species.
Conservation efforts have helped to stabilize the numbers of pygmy elephants but far more can be done. Sabah and the lowland forests of the “Heart of Borneo” (which covers 240,000 sq kilometers of rainforest that straddles the border between Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia and Malaysia) are two of the remaining places in the world where there are still large-scale tracts of natural forests, where some the greatest biodiversity of wildlife exists. Orangutans, elephants and rhinos still live in forests that, for the time being, are large enough to support their populations.
But a 2007 WWF report suggests that Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary, home to many Borneo pygmy elephants, may be too small and too fragmented to support them for the long term. Satellite tracking of some elephants has only revealed the extent of threats from logging and deforestation. The flat, lowland forests and river valleys that the elephants need to survive are precisely the place where the “most intensive logging” in Sabah has occurred.
The mysterious deaths of the ten elephants are a tragedy not only for their species and for Sabah, but for biodiversity efforts everywhere. It is a terrible reminder of why we need to push for sustainable, environmentally responsibly development around the world and all the more in places like Sabah, where ten fewer Borneo pygmy elephants are fighting to survive.
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Top photo: papayatreelimited/flickr