Malaysia’s Wild Elephants Need Help
An orphaned wild elephant baby tries to wake his dead mother, who had died of poisoning. Photo Credit: Sabah Wildlife Department
A disturbing phenomenon has puzzled and alarmed conservationists: wee little elephant calves are frequently found wandering abandoned and alone, without their mothers and herds. Over the past three years a total of 15 abandoned calves have been discovered near villages on the fringes of Sabah’s forests or inside palm oil plantations. Every single one of the calves was too young to be able to fend for itself.
To make matters worse, the number of orphaned little jumbos has been increasing steadily, according to wildlife officials in the state. In 2013, two baby elephants needed to be rescued. The following year the number rose to three. Then last year officials in Sabah had to save a record eight infant pachyderms. And that was hardly the end of it. This February alone, Sabah’s Wildlife Department needed to rescue another two baby elephants.
“I am extremely concerned about what is happening to our Bornean Elephant population in the wild,” said William Baya, director of the Sabah Wildlife Department’s Wildlife Rescue Unit. “For the past three years we have rescued 15 baby elephants, all below one year old.” We should all be concerned – and not just because we care about orphaned infants. An estimated 2,500 endemic Bornean pygmy elephants (Elephas maximus borneensis) remain, and albeit that population may seem sufficient, it isn’t. That’s because Malaysia’s pygmy elephants are facing a dangerous genetic bottleneck with the gene pool of the animals having shrunk at an alarming rate. This exposes wild elephants to increased risks of inbreeding and the attendant health problems.
The reason: habitat loss and forest fragmentation. As the various herds of the animals are becoming disconnected from one another through an fragmentation of their natural habitats, the chances of individuals to meet and mate with elephants from other herds are significantly reduced. That places the long-term genetic viability of this entire subspecies at risk in Sabah, according to a newly published paper in the journal Biological Conservation. Intensive forest clearing for land development and palm oil plantations, the article explains, has driven elephant populations into dwindling habitats in Lower Kinabatangan, Upper Kinabatangan and Central Sabah, while cutting herds further off from each other. If these forested areas become entirely disconnected, their resident elephant herds will be at ever greater risk of inbreeding.
It goes without saying that the state’s beleaguered wild elephants can ill afford to lose any more mothers and calves. Yet lose them regularly herds do. In 2013, an orphaned three-month-old calf, later named Kejora (or Joe for short), made headlines worldwide when he was rescued after his entire herd with its 14 members, including Joe’s mother, died of poisoning inside the Gunung Rara Forest Reserve in the south-central part of Sabah state. It was suspected that local palm oil cultivators might have been the likely culprits, but despite a reward of RM120,000 the culprits were never found. In one heart-rending image, Joe was photographed trying to awake his dead mother by nudging at her with his little trunk. The little jumbo was nursed back to health and found a new home in the Lok Kawi Wildlife Park.
Unfortunately, however, many other baby elephants in Sabah have since lost their mothers. Wildlife officials do have a strong clue about what is driving the trend of orphaned baby elephants: conflicts with villagers. As their natural roaming grounds shrink inexorably, herds of peripatetic pachyderms often come into contact with villagers on the edges of protected forests. When the animals wade into fields of cultivated crops or into palm plantations, villagers or plantation owners may poison or shoot some elephants in revenge, seeing these majestic animals as nothing but pests. The area where Joe’s herd was found dead was the site of a prospective new palm oil plantation. It’s likely that many other baby elephants that have been found wandering in distress by wildlife officials have had their mothers killed.
Between 2011 and 2015, there were a total of 2,620 reported complaints by villagers against elephant intrusions around Malaysia’s forest, according to the wildlife officials. In late January this year, a mature bull elephant strayed from its herd in the nearby Piah Forest Reserve and wandered into the village of Kampung Luat, in Perak, where he destroyed crops before local wildlife officials managed to subdue the animal and re-release it into the wild. “Some parts of the Piah Forest Reserve have been de-gazetted, causing the elephants’ natural habitat to gradually become smaller,” explained Meor Razak Meor Abdul Rahman, a field officer for Sahabat Alam Malaysia. “When there is less food for them, some elephants, sometimes foraging in herds, will enter human populated areas to look for domestic crops as a food source,” the officer explained.
“Logging activities create a lot of activity and noise that can scare off wildlife, including elephants,” he added. “Often, human-elephant conflict happens because human activities are encroaching onto the elephants’ territory.” In other words, human activity continues to destroy the elephants’ natural habitats, which then forces the animals to move closer to human settlements, whose habitants then end up resenting the increased presence of the animals near their communities. Fairness does not come into play: when humans encroach on natural environments, that’s fine; when wild animals encroach on human settlements, clearly that’s not so fine. Not coincidentally, over the years all the orphaned pachyderm babies in Sabah were rescued around the more heavily populated east coast of the state in human-elephant conflict areas: in Tawau, Lahad Datu, Telupid, Kinabatangan and Sandakan.
“Coupled by this alarming trend of orphans being rescued which basically means mothers are being killed, [this genetic bottleneck] could spell a deadly cocktail that would lead the Bornean elephant on the same trail of extinction as the now extinct in the wild Bornean rhinoceros of Sabah,” Dr Sen Nathan, the Sabah Wildlife Department’s assistant director, has warned. “We should never ever allow our Bornean elephants to join the Bornean rhinoceros on that path.”
Sen has called for enhanced protective measures for elephant herds in the wild as well as for better captive breeding procedures to ensure the survival of the species for decades to come. A step in the right direction would be the creation of a new elephant sanctuary with an effective conservation program in place. Dr Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar, minister of Natural Resources and Environment, has recently proposed setting up just such a refuge in Johor for Malaysia’s long-suffering jumbos – in addition to the two existing ones, the Kuala Gandah Elephant Sanctuary in Pahang and Kenyir Elephant Conservation Village in Terengganu.
Wild elephants across Malaysia need all our help and fast. Are they going to get it?