Ten endangered pygmy elephants have been found dead in suspicious circumstances in Malaysia, according to reports released today.
Sen Nathan, the head veterinarian at the Gunung Rara Forest Reserve in Sabah state on the island of Borneo, said officials “highly suspect” the animals have been victims of poisoning, possibly from poisonous plants or pesticides. The area where the elephants were found has been described as an “industrial tree plantation.” Tests are still to be carried out to determine whether they were deliberately harmed, according to BBC News.
“It was actually a very sad sight to see all those dead elephants, especially one of the dead females who had a very young calf of about three months old. The calf was trying to wake the dead mother up,” Masidi Manjun, environmental minister for the Sabah area said, according to BBC.
The elephants found dead this month were believed to be from the same family group and ranged in age from 4 to 20 years, said Nathan.
Malaysia’s The Star newspaper said the first elephant died on December 29 and the last was found in late January.
“Borneo pygmy elephants are smaller than other Asian elephants, chubbier, and have bigger ears and tails. They eat roughly 300 pounds of food daily—mostly roots, grasses, leaves, bananas and sugar cane,” according to the conservation society WWF.
WWF estimates that there are possibly as low as 1,600 individuals in the wild.
“The top threats to pygmy elephants are habitat loss and conflict with humans,” it added.
“If indeed these poor elephants were maliciously poisoned, I would personally make sure that the culprits would be brought to justice and pay for their crime,” Mr Masidi said in a statement.
Borneo pygmy elephants live mainly in Sabah and grow to about 8 feet tall, a foot or two shorter than mainland Asian elephants.
Known for their babyish faces, large ears and long tails, pygmy elephants were found to be a distinct subspecies only in 2003, after DNA testing.
Their numbers have stabilized in recent years amid conservation efforts to protect their jungle habitats from being torn down for plantations and development projects.
Post-mortem examinations showed that they had suffered severe hemorrhages and ulcers in their gastrointestinal tracts. None had gunshot injuries.
“We highly suspect that it might be some form of acute poisoning from something that they had eaten, but we are still waiting for the laboratory results,” Mr. Nathan said.