Bornean Pygmy Elephant foraging in Lower Kinabatangan

The Conflict and Consequences

Elephants, exclusively the Bornean sub-species, are highly regarded as a flagship species for conservation in Sabah. This charismatic species and its plight are an ideal representative of not just how magnificent the biodiversity is within the ecosystems but also point out the ongoing challenges that imperiled this species.

This island population is less than 1,000-1,500 in the wild. Scattered across Sabah, this smallest subspecies of elephants is facing tough challenges today as the numbers of these elephants are declining every year due to a vicious conflict with humans.

Today, it has been a challenging period for Sabah, as the number of cases of elephant death increases each year. In 2019, 24 deaths were recorded, with five cases occurring in the space only for four months. Poaching, poisoning, and snaring are the common cause of these awful records when most deaths appear to be more deliberate and retaliatory killings than accidents.

The recent death of a female calf in Lahad Datu as a result of injuries from a snare trap sparks a series an outraged for many. The increasing cases of elephant death from human and elephant conflict became more concerning in 2010 and 2019 when Sabah Wildlife Department registered 145 total cases.

It’s getting bad to worse. In September 2022, a 67-year-old woman died following an elephant attack in one of the districts in Sabah. It resulted in a herd of 40-50 individuals being guided to safer areas by the authorities to prevent any potential threat of retaliation killing.

And that is the painful reality of the human and elephant conflict.

The carcass of a Bornean Pygmy Elephant found dead in Lower Kinabatangan. (PDRM pic)

The Cause

Human and elephant conflict is a conservation concern, especially in countries where these species roam. This conflict existed because of a rapid rise in the human population that led to the expansion of human settlements and agricultural sites. It resulted in the loss of habitat and consequences for this species being away from their natural habitat and ruining their ancient migration routes.

Deforestation is, without a doubt, the cause of this conflict. The human population has been expanding over the years, leading to more forests vanishing to give way to this development expansion. Whether it is for human habitation or the source of economy, the natural habitat for this elephant start to shrink, and those are the main reason behind this conflict.

A proactive solution is needed to reduce and avoid this conflict that has proven can be fatal for both sides. These measures are from setting up and conserving more protected areas for this giant to roam and preserving the existing migration route by providing and creating an ecological corridor and enriching the forest by planting natural food sources which is a factor in keeping the elephant away from human habitation.

A young Pygmy Elephant in Sukau, Lower Kinabatangan

Big hope for the Island Giant’s

In 2020, the state government of Sabah approved ten years plan to conserve Bornean Elephant in Elephant Action Plan 2020-2029 with RM20 million in hand. The main objective is to stop these ongoing conflicts by protecting and providing connectivity for these elephants to roam and by ensuring the best practices in the management and ex-situ conservation of elephants research, monitoring, and predicting elephant population trends. It’s an effort to protect the remaining population in the state.

The goal of this plan is to put focus on conservation strategy with the ultimate objective of securing the future of these elephants. It’s more than just protecting, preserving, and creating a protected area for these elephants to roam, also provides more than just awareness to the locals regarding the elephant and the big picture of the conflict.

The Borneo elephant is facing the threat of extinction today. With all the proactive approaches and actions ongoing by the authorities and the NGOs in preserving this island’s natural treasure, there is always a promising future for this gentle giant.

Did you know?

In Sabah, Bornean Pygmy Elephant is a fully protected species under the First Schedule of the Sabah Wildlife Conservation Enactment of 1997. In 2016, the state government amended the enactment to provide stiffer penalties for offenses; under section 25 (1) of the enactment, convicted offenders face a minimum fine of RM50,000 and a maximin of RM250,000, plus imprisonment for no less than six months and up to five years.

Wildlife viewing with proper guidelines in Sukau, Lower Kinabatangan

Lower Kinabatangan is one of the three Major Elephant Ranges in Sabah. This 27,000-ha Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary floodplain can be characterized by its low elevation and less slope. Approximately around 200 individuals of this endangered elephant inhabit the area.

An adult eyeing the other side of the river

In Sukau Kinabatangan, Bornean Pygmy Elephant is one of the famous Big 5, which includes other creatures such as the Bornean Orangutan, Proboscis Monkey, Estuarine Crocodile, and Rhinoceros Hornbill. It is also arguably one of the best sites in the state to catch a glimpse of the majestic creature. Most of the time, elephants in the area are usually seen foraging on the riverside in the afternoon, and on rare occasions, one can witness them swim across the river.

If Bornean Elephant is in your checklist, do check our tour packages in Sukau to know more!