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Satellite tracking reveals threats to Borneo pygmy elephants


Gland, Switzerland – A new WWF study tracking pygmy elephants by satellite shows that the remaining herds of this endangered species, which live only on the island of Borneo, are under threat from habitat loss and forest fragmentation.

According to the study, Borneo pygmy elephants depend for their survival on forests situated on flat, low lands and in river valleys, the study found. Unfortunately, it is also the type of terrain preferred for commercial oil palm, rubber and timber plantations.

Over the past four decades, 40% of the forest cover of the Malaysian State of Sabah – in the northeast of Borneo where most of pygmy elephants are – has been lost to logging, conversion for plantations and human settlement.

“The areas that these elephants need to survive are the same forests where the most intensive logging in Sabah has taken place, because flat lands and valleys incur the lowest costs when extracting timber,” said Raymond Alfred, Head of WWF-Malaysia’s Borneo Species Programme.

“However, the Malaysian government’s commitment to retain extensive forest habitat throughout central Sabah, under the Heart of Borneo agreement, should ensure that the majority of the herds have a home in the long term.”

The Heart of Borneo initiative is a conservation and sustainable development programme aimed at conserving the last large expanse of contiguous forest on Borneo. The Heart of Borneo covers 240,000km2 of rainforest that straddles the border between Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia and Malaysia. In February 2007, the ministers of these three Bornean governments signed an historic declaration to conserve and sustainably manage the Heart of Borneo.

Satellite tracking
The WWF study, the largest using satellite collars ever attempted on Asian elephants, suggests that pygmy elephants prefer lowland forests because there is more food of better quality on fertile lowland soils.

But the study also shows that elephants’ movements are noticeably affected by human activities and forest disturbance. Data gathered so far reveals there are probably not more than 1,000 pygmy elephants left in Sabah – less than the 1,600 or so estimated previously.

One important area for the elephants, the Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary, may be too small and too fragmented to support a viable population in the long term.

Five pygmy elephants were darted and outfitted with collars two years ago by the Sabah Wildlife Department with WWF assistance. The collars sent GPS locations to a WWF computer via satellite as often as once a day.

“Satellite tracking is clearly one of the most effective ways of obtaining information on wild elephants in Sabah because they spend so much time inside the forest,” said Mahedi Andau, Director of the Sabah Wildlife Department. “We now have a good idea of the home range, size and location of some individual elephant herds.”

Avoiding conflict
Such information might also help predict locations where elephants and farms may come into future conflict.

WWF and the Sabah Wildlife Department will collar another 4 elephant groups this year, and the information gathered from the tracking will be used to provide additional and more specific information towards elephants conservation in Sabah.

While pygmy elephants can live in logged and secondary forests, it is crucial that their remaining habitat is managed sustainably and not converted into plantations, WWF says.

Logging in elephant habitat should only take place if there is a long-term forest management plan in place, and oil palm plantations should be established on degraded, non-forested land devoid of elephants and orang-utans.


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