Friday, February 01, 2013

Did palm oil cause the Borneo pygmy elephants deaths?

The heartbreaking photograph released on Wednesday shows a baby Borneo pygmy elephant trying to wake its dead mother. The mother is one of 14 elephants which died in the Gunang Rara forest reserve in the Sabah state in Borneo this week. The cause of these elephants’ deaths is still an unsolved mystery, although authorities suspect these elephants were poisoned. But is our increasing consumption of palm oil part of the story?

Elephants are magnificent things: massive flapping ears; skin – an inch thick; with 25,000 dollar ivory tusks on either side of their faces. To stay in shape, they spend between 16-18 hours a day eating and knocking things over – so whilst most of us will look at this picture and see a real-life, huggable Dumbo-the-elephant, the residents and plantation workers of the Malaysian Sabah state consider them a pesky nuisance. With a total population of 1200 critically endangered pygmy elephants in the world, these 14 deaths have come as a rude awakening to forest authorities.

The pygmies’ deaths have already resulted in finger-pointing at Borneo’s palm oil plantation workers. Chemical test results, to be released next week will confirm whether the elephants were ‘maliciously poisoned’.

Masidi Manjun, Sabah’s Minister of Environment tweeted “there is a task force investigating & for sure we’ll prosecute if suspects are nabbed” on January 30th at 7.15 pm

WWF-Malaysia Executive Director/CEO, Dato’ Dr Dionysius S K Sharma stated “According to reports, all the deaths have happened in areas where forests are being converted for plantations within the permanent forest reserves.

Palm oil may be the latest diet fad, but its tragic impact on Borneo’s rainforests has been devastating. Palm oil comes out of a spiky, low-maintenance plant and it is used to produce 1 in 10 supermarket items: ice cream, chocolate, bread, biscuits, crisps, soap, toothpaste and lipstick – a shopping list that amounts to the loss of Borneo’s remaining pygmies and other endemic species.

This lucrative product – in huge demand in the West – has led to land-clearing for plantations in Borneo since the 1980s. In the ‘heart of Borneo’, four million football fields worth of rainforest were sold for clearing. These forests are being cut down at a rate of 300 football fields an hour. 10 elephant carcasses were found in this region this week.

Dr Sharma commented: “The central forest landscape in Sabah needs to be protected totally from conversions. All conversion approvals need to be reviewed by the Sabah Forestry Department and assessed not purely from commercial but the endangered species and landscape ecology perspectives

“Conversions result in fragmentation of the forests, which in turn results in loss of natural habitat for elephant herds, thus forcing them to find alternative food and space, putting humans and wildlife in direct conflict”