Wildlife rangers have blamed the deaths of 14 pygmy elephants in Borneo on palm oil plantation workers, new reports say.
Rangers believe that the animals could have eaten toxic substances that had been laid out to keep away ‘pests’ from the highly lucrative crop. Pygmy elephants live on land in the Gunung Rara Forest Reserve, which is, unfortunately, very close to palm oil fields.
The total of pygmy elephants having died from these toxins has now risen to 14, as four more adults were discovered yesterday, on Jan. 30. Vets said that all of the dead elephants had suffered severe bleeding and gastrointestinal ulcers, leading to death. This sequence suggests they had been poisoned.
Among the survivors is a three-month-old calf, which had been pictured pitifully trying to rouse his mother after she had died. It is now being cared for at a wildlife park in Sabah where rangers have found it a home with other orphans.
Wildlife workers fear that more elephants could have been poisoned and are lying undiscovered in the remoter parts of Borneo. Laurentius Ambu, Sabah’s director of wildlife, said: ‘We are very concerned that many more carcasses are going to turn up. Because the elephants travel in herds they are going to be picking up the poisons together so we fear that there are still more dead that are going to be found.’
He said that rangers have been scouring the island looking for areas where poison could have been laid.
‘My hunch is that there may be more (carcasses). I don’t think it’s an accident,’ he added, explaining that the area where the dead elephants were found is part of a 100,000-acre piece of ‘commercial forest reserve’ land managed by state agency Sabah Foundation.
He said the area was slated to be used as a tree plantation for sustainable logging. So far, two palm oil plantations and a logging company operate in the area, he said.
Mr Ambu believes far too many jungle areas in Sabah were being broken up by agricultural or logging activities, without corridors linking them to allow animals to pass through.
‘This shouldn’t be. The fragmentation of forests has disrupted the elephants’ traditional routes to look for food. It is highly suspected that the poisoning is blatantly done or that it’s a well-planned program.’
Police are investigating the deaths and officials have declined to say whether there are any suspects. Meanwhile, conservationists say they are deeply concerned about the effects the palm oil industry is having on the wildlife of Borneo. A spokesman for the WWF said that the dead elephants were found in areas being converted for plantations, giving fresh urgency to activists’ warnings of rising conflict between man and wildlife as development accelerates.
‘The central forest landscape in Sabah needs to be protected totally from conversion,’ the group said in a statement. ‘Conversions result in fragmentation of the forests, which in turn results in loss of natural habitat for elephant herds, thus forcing them to find alternative food and space, putting humans and wildlife in direct conflict.’
The first ten known deaths of the pygmy elephants were made public this week, capturing wide attention as only about 1,200 of the elephants exist worldwide. Authorities released several photographs of the elephant carcasses, including a particularly poignant one of the three-month-old surviving calf trying to wake its dead mother.
Most of the pygmy elephants live in Sabah and grow to about 8 feet tall, a foot or two shorter than mainland Asian elephants.
Sabah is one of the poorest states in Malaysia. Sabah Foundation was granted huge forest concessions, totaling about 14 percent of total land area in Sabah, by the state government to enable it to generate income to fund its aim of improving the lives of poor rural people.
The Sabah Foundation website said it had adopted sound forest management policies to ensure the areas are managed on a sustainable basis.