KOTA KINABALU: The 14 pygmy elephants which died mysteriously at the Gunung Rara reserves last month are likely to have died from pesticide poisoning, according to research carried out by the Borneo Conservation Trust (BCT).
BCT found chemicals such as cyanide and sulphur at the site where the elephants were found, but is unsure whether the poisoning was deliberate.
BCT conservation and research head Raymond Alfred said traces of both chemicals could have contaminated the animals' food sources near the area.
“Cyanide could be traced to certain pesticides that are used to increase the growth of young oil palm trees, while sulphur is normally used by local hunters or Indonesian workers hunting wild boars at the edge of plantations adjacent to the forest,” he said.
“However no concrete evidence has been gathered to show that the elephants were poisoned by the plantations during their encroachment or presence along the Ulu Sungai Napagon and Imbok River at the area where the elephants were discovered,” he said.
“And there is also no concrete evidence showing that the logging contractors were using high amount of pesticides to kill the elephants at the Gunung Rara Forest Reserve, although white substances were found within the vicinity where the elephant corpses were found,” he stressed.
Alfred added that elephants were very alert creatures and could smell poison.
He explained that elephants entered the plantations within the Gunung Rara and Kalabakan reserves to gain access to water and a saltlick.
Non-functioning electrical fences set up by the plantations involved have also allowed the elephants easy access into the plantations, he pointed out.
Alfred suggested several possible solutions to address the issue, including restoring and expanding the riverine forest, as well as preserving as many virgin and lowland secondary forests as possible.
He said the major threats Bornean elephants face were the degradation and fragmentation of their habitat.
This raises the risk of genetic isolation from other elephants, particularly when traditional seasonal migratory routes are blocked.
The fragmentation of elephant habitat has also led to the increasing number of human-elephant conflicts at Lower Kinabatangan, Alfred said.
To counter the issues faced by the elephants, Raymond stressed the need to establish forest corridors and strengthen existing ones.
“The corridors don't necessarily have to be established at prime elephant habitats. It could be established at degraded forest areas to facilitate elephant movement and to provide the elephants with some cover,” he said.
“In forest reserves, priority is given to the elephants' requirements, but compatible human activities such as sustained-yield forestry and slow rotation of timber harvesting programme can also contribute to creating a good habitat for elephants as re-growth and secondary vegetation often provide excellent food resources and are capable of maintaining higher elephant densities than primary forests."
Alfred said that BCT and the Sabah Wildlife Department are currently preparing a programme where every plantation had to to establish a wildlife conservation unit.
The programme which will run five to 10 years will help manage multiple-use forest landscapes and monitor the elephant population.
It will also have an honorary wildlife warden component, as well as help manage and restore degraded forests.
Additionally through the programme, they also hope to provide mitigation training and management measures to reduce human-elephant conflict, he said.
Alfred is hoping to get support from the Sabah state government and the relevant departments in charge of tourism and plantations for this cause.
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