Zoos Pledge to Fight Palm Oil’s Big Threat to Pygmy Elephants

Fewer than 2,000 of Borneo’s undersized and under-protected pachyderms remain in forests that are increasingly surrounded by palm oil plantations.
(Photo: Bazuki Muhammad/Reuters)
Jan 27, 2016· 2 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

Borneo’s endangered and little-known pygmy elephants just got a big conservation boost from three zoos in the United States.

Fewer than 2,000 pygmy elephants remain in the forests of northeastern Borneo, most of them in the Malaysian state of Sabah. These rare pachyderms—which are about 10 to 25 percent smaller than other Asian elephants—aren’t poached for their ivory tusks like African elephants. Instead they are frequently killed or injured by workers on palm oil plantations or villagers in retaliation for elephants raiding their crops.

One of the most grisly incidents occurred three years ago, when 14 pygmy elephants were found dead outside a palm oil plantation. Poison was suspected as the cause of death.

These types of human-elephant conflicts are on the rise and projected to get worse, said Nadja Wielebnowski, conservation and research manager for Oregon Zoo, which is teaming up with Houston Zoo and Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo to help Malaysia’s Sabah Wildlife Department and two local conservation organizations, HUTAN KOCP and the Danau Girang Field Centre.

“Palm oil plantations are pretty much surrounding the forest patches the elephants are in,” Wielebnowski said. The elephants wander out of the forest looking for food, only to encounter plantations or villages instead. “They start interfering with people, and that of course leads to more and more problems.”

In addition to ongoing deforestation, climate change may also be influencing elephant behavior. “Over the past 10 years there have been changes in some of the patterns of rainfall and fruit distribution,” Wielebnowski said. As the elephants’ normal food disappears or moves, the animals need to move as well, which results in additional conflicts.

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Elephants aren’t the only species affected by these changes. “The villagers, in turn, increasingly have to go into the forest to find food,” Wielebnowski said.

Ecotourism also means more people are entering the forests for a chance to see the animals, which are no longer living up to their docile reputation. “Researchers have found that the elephants are being more aggressive than they used to be,” she said. Problem elephants may need to be relocated to new areas.

Reducing these conflicts is the major goal of the collaboration. One short-term solution may be to build electric fences near villages or plantations to keep elephants away. HUTAN also trains some communities to peacefully shoo away any elephants that enter villages or threaten crops.

In the longer term, the project hopes to identify the areas where the elephants can safely move from one forest to another to prevent the conflicts from happening in the first place. “What we really need are corridors to connect these forest fragments,” Wielebnowski said. “It’s not only whatever land is left, but can an elephant move through this particular area effectively.” Once the corridors are identified, she said, they can be preserved.

Wielebnowski said most people are surprised to learn that Borneo’s elephants even exist, let alone that they need protecting, as they do not receive as much press or conservation attention as their African counterparts. She hopes this international collaboration can help to turn things around. “We’re trying to leverage the money of these three institutions together and highlight that this species needs our support,” she said.