Sunday, December 8, 2013

Bornean elephant conservation efforts increase

By: Emily Bamforth
Produced & edited by: Katie Foglia
Americans typically get their view of elephants from outside the confines of a zoo exhibit, but for Malaysians, the chance to spectate on various subspecies is embedded into the environment.
However, for the elephants of Malaysia, various factors may be threatening their existence. One of the subspecies, the Bornean elephant, lost 14 of their population at once in January. There is still no follow-up on the cause of death, but investigations are ongoing.

Subspecies of Asian elephants in Malaysia

Two subspecies of Asian elephants exist in Malaysia: mainland Asian elephants in peninsular Malaysia and the Bornean elephant. Both are endangered – less than 1,500 Bornean elephants can be found, and the Asian elephant species range from 20,000 to 25,000, according to the World Wildlife Fund.
Borneo elephants. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
“At the beginning of the 20th century, elephants lived all over the Malaysian peninsula,” said Ahimsa Campos Arceiz, an associate professor at the University of Nottingham, Malaysia campus, in an email. “Gradually their range has been constraining, as the forest was being replaced by urban areas, plantations, and infrastructure. At present, elephants in Peninsular Malaysia are reduced to six States: Kedah, Perak, Kelantan, Terengganu, Pahang, and Johor.”
Currently Bornean elephants reside on the eastern side of the area of Sabah in Malaysia. They do not reside in other parts of Borneo. In the media, the subspecies is sometimes mentioned as “pygmy elephants”, but in reality, they are not significantly smaller than those in mainland Malaysia. 

Various threats to elephants 

Threats to elephants in Malaysia include conflicts with humans over crop consumption, poaching, live capture, environmental decay and the consequences of small and fragmented populations, he said.
Another issue is the production of palm oil. Palm oil leads to the reduction of forests where elephants may live, an especially dangerous threat to the Bornean subspecies. Pygmy elephants can be destructive to palm oil plantations.

Malaysia produces 39 percent of world palm oil production, according to the Malaysian Palm OilCouncil.

“The main challenge is of course to keep the available forest from being converted to oil palm or other development activities,” said Nurzhafarina Othman in an email. Othman is one of the leading experts on Bornean pygmy elephants based in Sabah, Malaysia.

Othman said the biggest threats to the subspecies are forest reduction and conflicts between humans and the elephants. However, interactions between humans and the elephants that measure just over 8 feet tall can show a different benefit of the species.
“In Sabah, elephants are one of the main attractions for tourism,” Othman said. “People from all over the world come here to watch wild elephants along the Kinabatangan River, for example.”

Tourists help bathe two Asian elephants at the Kuala Gandah
Elephant Conservation Center. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
Elephants also serve as vehicles for spreading seeds through their feeding habits and excrement. For megafaunal-syndrome trees – plants that generate large fruit that require being eaten and dispersed by large animals – elephants are main disseminators of the species. This includes mangos, durians or jackfruit-like species, said Arceiz.
Breeding programs are not the way to go about conserving the Bornean elephants, said leading expert Benoit Goossens in an email.
“Increasing their number is not a priority, but rather protecting their habitat” he said. “Sabah Wildlife Department and stakeholders such as DGFC have produced a State Action Plan for the elephant, and we are currently implementing that action plan.”

Plans for protecting the elephant's habitats

The plan is stated to run from 2012 to 2016. Highlights of the plan are to create a “Bornean Elephant Conservation Alliance” along with declaration of Managed Elephant Ranges (MER). MER include Lower Kinabatangan, North Kinabatangan, Tabin and Central Sabah. However, while some programs are in place, the World Wildlife Fund and the Sabah Department of Wildlife are working together to implement more policies. 

Bornean elephants have also been upgraded to Schedule 1 of “Totally Protected Species”, the highest level of protection under the Sabah Wildlife Law. Any person caught killing or hunting an elephant will receive a mandatory sentence of six months to five years in jail.
Malaysian elephants, in general, are protected under the Wildlife Act and are listed in the Appendix I of CITES treaty about wildlife trade.
In regards to conserving Malaysian subspecies of elephant Arceiz said “business as usual” will not work to preserve the animals present in the country.

“We need people to understand that conservation of these species involves living with some amount of conflict,” he said. “We need to find mechanisms to reduce the burden of conservation on people living next to these species, so they can increase their tolerance to them.”

No comments: