May 26, 2008

Tagging Pygmy Elephants In Borneo


Tagging pygmy elephants in Borneo
By Jan Vertefeuille

There’s an elephant less than six metres in front of me and yet I can’t make out any part of her in the dense Borneo jungle. So congested is the jungle with vines and leaves that seeing and walking become arduous tasks.

But we can hear her. Immobilized by the sedative shot into her rump but still conscious, the pygmy elephant calls out to her herd for help using infrasound, uttering a soft, low rumble from the back of her throat. Elephants are famously protective of their families and the rest of the herd is distressed by their matriarch’s apparent troubles. There is much trumpeting from the bush. How many elephants are surrounding us, we can’t tell.

The WWF team moves quickly, and quietly, to lessen the stress on our target elephant. We’re here to put a satellite tracking collar on her as part of WWF’s research to learn more about the pygmy elephants of Borneo and how best to protect them. It’s the first time anyone has ever studied Borneo’s elephants and WWF is collaring five of them on the northeast tip of the island. It will be the largest study ever done to track Asian elephants via satellite.

Searching for an elephant in a jungle
The elephant in front of us has been dubbed Nancy, in honour of long-time elephant conservation supporter Nancy Abraham. One member of our team covers the elephant’s eyes with cotton as WWF scientist Dr Christy Williams hoists the 10kg collar over her neck. Enough room is left to ensure the collar isn’t too tight, but not so loose that she could slip it off. The collar houses GPS and satellite units that will convey Nancy’s location to a website checked daily by WWF scientists to track the herd’s movements through the Borneo rain forest.

The Borneo jungle doesn’t give up its secrets easily. Following in an elephant’s footsteps through knee-deep mud, through walls of vines that cling to every surface, and beneath underbrush dripping with hungry leeches is a slow and sometimes frustrating process. Who would have thought finding and darting an animal as a large as an elephant would be so hard. It’s almost like looking for a needle in a haystack.

The collaring team from the Sabah Wildlife Department in Malaysia and WWF’s Borneo office are used to spending days, sometimes weeks, inside the jungle looking for the elusive species.

“If you go inside the jungle, you can feel how big it is,” says William Joseph, a 35-year-old elephant tracker with WWF in Borneo.

Joseph and his fellow tracker and brother, Engelbert, can look at grass bent over by elephants and know which way they went, or see a pile of elephant dung on the road and know how long since they have passed by and how many there were.

Make room for the pygmies
The jungles of Borneo are big. In fact, the island’s forests are one of the only places left in Southeast Asia where it is still possible to conserve forests on a very large scale. But world demand for palm oil — used in common products like hand lotion, ice cream and chocolate — is driving the rapid conversion of the pygmy elephants’ forests into palm oil plantations.

Elephants — even pygmy ones — require large feeding grounds, as well as access to members of the opposite sex for breeding. Shrinking forests and blocks of habitat cut off from one another make it difficult for elephants to thrive. It also brings the elephants into more frequent contact with people, increasing human-elephant conflict in the region. As forests shrink, elephants are increasingly closer to fields and cultivated land, generating conflict with humans that often result in the death of the elephants by poisoning or capture, as well as economic losses to humans.

Putting collars on the elephants will be a huge step forward in scientists’ understanding of the pygmy elephants and which forests are most important to them — and hence, the most crucial to preserve. And the collars will make keeping track of them much easier for WWF, the only conservation organization working to protect the population.

“Our field team has tracked elephants on foot for weeks at a time to gather data, but it’s very difficult and labor-intensive,” says Raymond Alfred, WWF’s project manager of the Asian Rhinoceros and Elephant Action Strategy (AREAS). “We are still in the process of figuring out how to get optimum outputs from the use of this tagging technology.”

WWF elephant experts expect the collars to give them insight into how much ground each herd covers, what type of forest they prefer to feed in, how they react to logging and other human disturbance in the forest, and what habitat is most crucial to the elephants’ future survival. Nancy doesn’t know it, but she’s helping scientists save her species.

Survival of the species
So little is known about the Borneo pygmy elephant that it’s not even known how many there are. WWF’s AREAS Programme estimates that there are about 1,000 to 1,500 of them, but probably no more than that.

“Further studies are needed to better understand this population and exactly how it differs from other Asian elephants,” said Williams, who leads WWF’s Asian elephant conservation efforts.

What is known is that Borneo elephants are less aggressive and smaller than other Asian elephants, with males growing perhaps only as tall as 2.5m, while other Asian elephants can grow to 3m. They also have larger ears and longer tails and are more rotund, making even adult pygmy elephants look like juveniles.

As Nancy gets fitted with her new collar, another member of the collaring team takes her measurements with a very large measuring tape, while another team member does a quick walkaround to check for scars, injuries and other identifying marks. She’s a big elephant, probably around 40, and appears to be pregnant — something the team will be able to determine in the coming months as it starts to keep closer tabs on her.

Until recently, the origins of the Borneo pygmy elephant were in dispute. Many believed they were remnants of a domesticated herd abandoned on the island by the Sultan of Sulu in the 17th century. If they were simply domesticated elephants gone feral, that would make them a low conservation priority for the Malaysian government. But in 2003, a DNA analysis by WWF and Columbia University researchers proved the pygmy elephants are genetically different from other Asian elephants and thus a separate subspecies. The evidence suggests that they became isolated from other elephant populations about 300,000 years ago and developed their distinctive characteristics over this time.

As an endangered subspecies, they are of high conservation priority. WWF is moving quickly to learn all we can about them, as much of their rain forest habitat is converted into commercial tree plantations.

In less than 25 minutes, the collaring is complete. Everyone backs quickly away as a team member injects a dartful of antidote into her rump. Nancy calls to her herd and angry trumpets can be heard from the group as they rush to check on her.

Wonder what they think of the new neckwear she’s now sporting?

* Jan Vertefeuille is a Senior Communications Officer at WW-US.


• The Island of Borneo, the world’s third largest island — split between the countries of Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia — is known for its rain forests, which rival those of the Amazon and New Guinea in biological diversity. These rich forests provide habitat for elephants, rhinos and orangutans, as well as a vast array of distinct creatures, from giant moths to flying squirrels, horn-billed birds to color-changing lizards.

• According to a WWF report — Borneo: Treasure Island at Risk — rampant logging and the conversion of forests to plantations are driving the destruction of Borneo's forests. There about 2.5 million hectares of oil palm plantations in Borneo. With a current deforestation rate of 1.3 million hectares per year, only peat and montane forests would survive in the coming years. Today, only half of Borneo's forest cover remains, down from 75 per cent in the mid 1980s.

• Through WWF’s Heart of Borneo initiative, the global conservation organization aims to assist Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia to conserve a total of 220,000km² of equatorial rainforest through a network of protected areas and sustainably-managed forest, and through international cooperation led by the Bornean governments and supported by a global effort.


oodles said...

The documentary about Bert tracking the pygmy elephants was on Irish primetime TV last night. I was deeply moved by the animals and by Bert's gentle approach to making contact and learning about them. I am heartened by the efforts made by the local people, WWF and the Sabah Wildlife Department to save these beautiful creatures. Biodiversity is like a poem - take out one word and it no longer makes any sense. In gratitude I bow my head to Bert and William and all others involved. Thank you.