Borneo pygmy elephants, planters battle for land

Sun Feb 22, 2009 11:01pm EST
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By Niluksi Koswanage

SUKAU, Malaysia (Reuters Life!) - Deprived of access to his favorite food, a pygmy elephant trumpets furiously and charges at wildlife officials, a manifestation of this rare species' battle against Malaysia's key palm oil industry.

Some herds of pygmy elephants, an endangered species according to conservation body the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF), are thriving on the fruit of palm oil plantations that encroach on their domains on Borneo island.

This has intensified the challenges to a mainstay of the economy in this South East Asian country of 27 million people, and the aggression the elephants show against humans.

"He's angry because they have been chased away from a plantation. They want to eat more oil palm hearts," said Sabah wildlife department official Hussien Muin who has tracked elephants for nearly 11 years.

"It is one of the biggest herds in this area now, 30 to 40 of them," Hussein said of the herd on this part of the Kinabatangan River floodplain where he estimates that elephant numbers have risen 50 percent in the past six years to 230.

The Kinabatangan River, the largest in northeast Sabah state, opens out into a floodplain, which totals 4,000 square kilometers (km) (1,544 square miles), an area around seven times the size of New York City.

The WWF estimates Sabah is home to 1,500 pygmy elephants, who were once seen as the descendents of a private zoo kept by the Sultan of Sulu but are now viewed as a subspecies of larger Asian elephants.

Male pygmy elephants grow as tall as 2.5 meters (8.2 feet), half a meter shorter than Asian elephants. They have babyish faces, larger ears and are tubbier and less aggressive than their cousins.   Continued...