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.
They journey 1-2km a day and eat about 200 kgs of grass, palms and bananas but as their feeding ranges get cut off by villages, roads and plantations, traveling distances can triple, a WWF study using satellite tracking showed.
It is when they eat oil palm fruits, used to make products ranging from cooking oil to cosmetics, and one of Malaysia's biggest export earners, that conflict becomes more intense.
Malaysia has 4.3 million hectares of oil plantations and Sabah alone, one of 13 states, has 1.4 million. In 2008, exports from the industry were worth $17.64 billion.
The price of palm oil has plunged by two-thirds from its peak to around $500 a ton now as the global economic slowdown has taken a grip and planters say they can ill-afford to lose crops.
"Palm oil prices are not very good like last year. If there are more elephants coming around here, there will be less to sell," said Sumarni Munarji, a smallholder who has six-acres in Sukau village near where the elephants graze.
To protect their oil palms, planters have worked with wildlife bodies to erect low-voltage electric fences and bamboo cannons laced with gunpowder that scare the elephants away without harming them, minimizing direct conflict.
Spurred on by WWF and green groups, two big planters have allocated land for reforestation to create nature highways for elephants and other animals on the lower Kinabatangan river.
But a boat ride showed there were still large patches of cleared land between thinned out forests.
"Human-elephant conflicts occur daily around the Kinabatangan on palm oil," said Raymond Alfred, who works for the WWF.
"We still need long term solutions other than fences and cannons because elephants still have to deal with fragmented habitats and some form of conflict," he said.
In some parts of the lower Kinabatangan, poisoning and shooting still goes on. Even as humans use new methods to protect their crops, elephants show that they too can learn.
"These elephants are very cunning. Just few days ago, this male elephant pushed another one through the electric fence and broke it. We have to be tough or we will get into trouble," said Don-don, an Indonesian worker guarding a plantation.
The sheer force of economics means that planters will continue to protect land and income.
"Palm oil is the king of this area not the elephant," said an estate manager of a major palm oil company in the area who declined to be identified due to the sensitivity of the issue.
"We can do some reforestation projects but if the elephants still come and eat our oil palms, who is going to pay for those damages," he said.
(Editing by David Chance and Miral Fahmy)
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