Pygmy Elephants Threatened by Logging, Oil Palm Plantations

Pygmy Elephants
Pygmy elephants in Borneo.
Photo by Badly Drawn Dad via Flickr

Encroaching plantations and rampant logging are threatening populations of the pygmy elephant, a species unique to the dense tropical forests of Malaysian Borneo. Fewer than 1,500 of the elephants remain in the region, where clearcutting of forests for oil palm plantations and expanding human settlements is shrinking the animal’s traditional feeding and breeding grounds.

Genetically distinct from other Asian elephants, pygmy elephants are less aggressive and smaller in size, with shorter trunks and a rounder appearance. They are restricted in their range to the state of Sabah in northeastern Borneo, a 700,000-hectare area that is one of the largest remaining contiguous habitats for elephants in Asia. But Sabah has lost nearly half of its original forest cover over the last four decades, and it continues to face pressure from clearing for industrial agriculture, mostly in the form of expanding oil palm plantations as the government places growing emphasis on producing palm oil as a biodiesel feedstock.

The conservation group WWF-Malaysia confirmed the shrinking of the pygmy elephant’s habitat after conducting Asia’s largest project for the satellite tracking of elephants to determine the animal’s range requirements. Starting in 2005, wildlife researchers fitted five pygmy elephants with radio-transmitting collars to record their wanderings. By observing the animals, scientists concluded that high forest diversity is critical for providing the types and amounts of foods necessary to sustain breeding populations of the species.

“In one day, the elephant needs to have more than 200 [kilograms] of food, and if lowland forests are converted to oil palm or other uses, that will reduce the food sources for them, Raymond Alfred, project manager of the Sabah tracking project, told Reuters. “And we still don’t know whether they will be able to adapt to the highland forest food sources.”

Habitat loss has also been a catalyst for heightened human-elephant conflicts in the region. Nearly 20 percent of the pygmy elephants living in the Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary have suffered near-fatal injuries from illegal snares laid down by plantation workers to trap small game animals. Despite their characteristic gentle nature, the elephants have exhibited a more aggressive streak in their interactions with people over the last few years.

WWF says the elephants still have a chance at maintaining viable populations if immediate action taken. Steps include delineating and protecting corridors between habitat patches to facilitate elephant movements, as well as greater monitoring of critical habitats to curb disturbances from timber felling and intrusions by plantation workers. But these activities would mean a halt in the conversion of area forests to plantations, possibly disrupting key economic goals in the region. In July, the state of Sabah pledged to demarcate close to 180,000 hectares of forests for “sustainable” forestry to maintain habitats critical for the survival of pygmy elephants and other threatened species, including orangutans and the Borneo rhinoceros.

This story was produced by Eye on Earth, a joint project of the Worldwatch Institute and the blue moon fund. View the complete archive of Eye on Earth stories, or contact Staff Writer Alana Herro at aherro [AT] worldwatch [DOT] org with your questions, comments, and story ideas.