Fourteen endangered Borneo pygmy elephants have recently been found dead in a Malaysian forest, presenting a mystery for wildlife officials and conservationists.
The recent deaths highlight the vulnerable status of the species, which now numbers about 1,500 animals. Scientists don't know how many pygmy elephants previously existed on the island, although it's likely the population wasn't much higher than it is today, said Barney Long, head of Asian species conservation at WWF-US.
This week Malaysian authorities discovered a group of elephant carcasses close together in the Gunung Rara Forest Reserve, located in the northeastern corner of Borneo (map), a Southeast Asian island shared by Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei.
"We don't know officially yet how they died, but what we do know is this is an area of forest that is being cleared for plantations, and it's very common that when the forest is cleared, conflict between humans and elephants spikes," said Long.
For instance, in agricultural areas in neighboring Sumatra, people have put out poisoned fruit for elephants to eat, causing a whole herd to drop dead in one area. The poison is usually whatever is locally available, such as rodenticide, he said.
"The presumption here is that [the recent deaths are] similar to that. Obviously that is complete guesswork until we have results of the autopsies," Long said.
The Malaysian government is performing autopsies on the dead elephants, although it's unknown when they will release the results, he added.
Cute Elephant Dwindling in Number
Pygmy elephants were isolated about 300,000 years ago from their relatives on mainland Asia and Sumatra and evolved their small size to adapt to forest living.
With their baby faces, oversize ears, and plump bellies, "Walt Disney himself couldn't have crafted a cuter elephant," according to WWF's website. (Visit National Geographic's elephant hub.)
But the population of this charismatic mini-elephant is dwindling in number as large tracts of Borneo's forests are cleared to make way for palm oil plantations, restricting the animals to increasingly smaller areas and forcing them into closer contact with people. (Get more elephant news on the National Geographic blog A Voice For Elephants.)
For example, the mammals need about 115 square miles (300 square kilometers) in which to find enough food, water, and minerals, according to WWF's studies of elephants fitted with radio collars.
"When you chop down part of their habitat, they're still going back there looking for resources that used to be there," Long said.
And if that happens to be a plantation, that's when run-ins with people occur.
Pygmy Elephants Need Protection
Whatever caused the recent deaths, the incident has prompted WWF to call on the Malaysian government to better protect pygmy elephants. (Also see "'Extinct' Pygmy Elephants Found Living on Borneo.")
For one, the species needs to be listed as "totally protected" by law in Malaysia, which has been recommended by scientists but not yet enacted by the government, WWF-Malaysia executive director Dionysius S.K. Sharma said in a statement.
Though the animals are already protected from hunting, the huge swaths of habitat they rely on also need to be set aside from logging.
What's more, the local wildlife department needs to invest more resources in patrolling the area for illegal activities, Sharma said.
"Frequent and large-scale patrolling is critical to avoid such conflict from happening again," he said.
Though the killings won't be disastrous for the population overall, noted WWF-US's Long, what it is showing "is a huge pressure on elephants."
"If this is a case of poisoning, [it shows] how easy it is for one individual to wipe out a significant number [of elephants]."