130 experts, scientists in Sabah to help conserve pygmy elephants

Deputy Chief Minister Christina Liew (centre) receiving a memento from Asian Elephant Specialist Group chairman Vivek Menon (left) in Kota Kinabalu today.

KOTA KINABALU: Sabah is placing high hopes on a gathering of elephant experts to assist the state in the protection and conservation of its precious Bornean pygmy elephants.

Some 130 people, comprising scientists, wildlife managers and specialists in Asian elephants, are in the state capital for the 10th Asian Elephant Specialist Group (ASESG) meeting, the first to be held in the state.

The group will be in Sabah for the next few days for a discourse on elephant conservation, particularly the Bornean pygmy elephant.

They will also visit the Lower Kinabatangan, in the state’s east coast, to see for themselves the natural habitat of this animal while in Sabah.

Deputy Chief Minister Christina Liew said she is hopeful the group can provide solid solutions, especially in dealing with human-elephant conflict issues.

Liew, who is also state tourism, culture and environment minister, said this will augur well for Sabah’s 10-year action plan, aimed at increasing conservation efforts of its shrinking pygmy elephant population.

A paper will be presented to the state Cabinet next January on these efforts.

“We hope that through this forum, there will be an exchange of ideas and learning from overseas experts so we can implement them in human-elephant conflict management to reduce the number of deaths.

“For the past 10 years, around half of the 145 elephant deaths were due to poisoning or gunshots. Other deaths remain unsolved,” she told reporters after representing Chief Minister Shafie Apdal in opening the event here today.

Shafie, in his speech read out by Liew, said recent years have seen a dramatic escalation in human-wildlife conflict, severely testing the critical balance on land use between wildlife habitats and human-induced activities.

He said most of the elephant deaths in Sabah occurred in oil palm plantations or forest reserves close to plantations.

He added that two weeks ago, Malaysia’s last known Sumatran rhino died, making the species extinct in the country.

“But it is not too late to save the Bornean elephants. We will not lose our elephants like we lost our rhinos … not on my watch,” Shafie said.

ASESG chairman Vivek Menon said the group is particularly excited about visiting Lower Kinabatangan tomorrow.

“We are here to help the Bornean elephant face whatever challenges there are with whatever expertise we have,” he told reporters.

Vivek said the Bornean elephant should be recognised as a species in its own right instead of just being an Asian elephant sub-species.

“In olden literature, there are some who described the species as separate. Recently, there has been some controversy that it’s from outside (Borneo).

“There have been discussions but now there is enough evidence, even in paleontology and genetics, to show that this animal has been here at least 18,000 years, maybe even 100,000 years.

“It is absolutely clear it is not from outside. It is a distinct Bornean elephant,” he said.