Malaysia: pygmy elephants poisoned for palm oil

A baby elephant standing over the body of its dead mother, touching her head with its trunk A baby elephant mourning its poisoned mother. Picture: picture alliance / dpa (© picture alliance / dpa)
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14 Borneo pygmy elephants have been poisoned in the Malaysian state of Sabah. The rare animals are considered pests on the oil palm plantations that are rapidly eating into the rainforests. Please call for an immediate end to the destruction of rainforests and for the protection of the elephants.

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To: Mr. Najib Razak, Prime Minister of Malaysia; Mr. Datuk Seri Musa Aman, Chief Minister of Sabah

“Call on the Malaysian government to protect Malaysia's wildlife and punish the perpetrators of the elephant poisonings.”

Read letter

It was a shocking sight for the rangers of the Gunung Rara Forest Reserve: a baby elephant trying in vain to wake its mother with its trunk. She had been poisoned, along with 13 other animals. Their carcasses were found over a period of four weeks on land controlled by Yayasan Sabah, the state wood and palm oil group. The elephants all belonged to the same herd, which had been staying at the edge of the rainforest reserve – in close proximity to a logging camp and oil palm plantations.

“The elephants ate rat poison. That’s how the plantation workers stop the animals from eating the fruit of the oil palm”, suspects Laurentius Ambu, director of the local conservation authority. The Borneo pygmy elephant is a rare forest elephant subspecies, of which no more than 1,500 animals remain – almost all in Sabah.

Malaysia's economy continues to rely on exports of tropical timber and palm oil. The last remaining rainforest areas in the states of Sabah and Sarawak are being cleared for plantations. And with those forests, Borneo is losing an incredible wealth of animal and plant species, including endangered rhinos, orangutans and proboscis monkeys.

Sabah Chief Minister Musa Aman is driving the deforestation by personally granting permits to clear the rainforest and establish palm oil plantations. He is also Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the state-owned Yayasan Sabah Group. In late 2012, the company began clearing another 70,000 hectares of rainforest for plantations, leaving no room for the forest elephants.

Call on Aman and the Malaysian government to put an immediate end to this crime against nature and to work toward protecting the rainforests and their residents.


Borneo pygmy elephants

The 14 poisoned animals all belonged to the same family. Such groups contain up to 20 individuals, and rangers fear that more animals may have eaten the poison. The family’s territory covers around 400 square kilometers.

The Borneo pygmy elephant (Elephas maximus borneensis) is the smallest subspecies of forest elephants. These animals are highly threatened, mainly by hunting, habitat loss, and the resulting conflict with humans. 1,500 individuals at the most have survived in the wild to this day – particularly in the Malaysian state of Sabah.

The elephant is protected under Malaysia's Wildlife Conservation Law. Hunting or killing them is subject to a fine, up to five years of prison or both.

The wheeling and dealing of Sabah’s Chief Minister

According to the NGO Sabah Report, Sabah’s authoritarian ruler Musa Aman has been profiting from the clearing of rainforests and the illicit timber trade for years. He and his clan grant illegal logging and export permits in exchange for substantial bribes. They then allow the planting of palm oil plantations on the cleared land – even in protected areas. Since 2007, the Malaysian anti-corruption authorities have been investigating the bin Aman family and its network of corruption and money laundering that extends from Malaysia to Hong Kong, Singapore and Switzerland.

70 million euros in bribes have allegedly been laundered through accounts of the Swiss bank UBS alone. The Swiss federal prosecutor opened a criminal case against the bank after charges were brought against it by the Bruno Manser Fund, an environmental organization that has supported the Penan people and their fight against the destruction of the rainforest for many years.

Please see our campaign against UBS for more information.

The Yayasan Sabah Group

Founded in 1966, the official role of the state-owned Yayasan Sabah Group (formerly Yayasan Sabah Foundation) is to promote development in the state of Sabah. Its Chairman is Sabah’s Chief Minister Musa Aman. The group holds concessions in Sabah covering a million hectares of rainforest. For decades, logging was the mainstay of Yayasan Sabah. Now that the stocks of luxury woods on its land have been depleted, the group has gone over to clearing rainforest for industrial timber and oil palm plantations.

In late 2012, Yayasan Sabah began felling 70,000 hectares of rainforest for an oil palm plantation. The clearing work will take about 3 years. The conversion of rainforest land offers one last opportunity for fast profit from vast quantities of industrial timber. The area also includes more or less intact protected areas of unique biodiversity that were originally established by researchers. These include the Gunung Rara Forest Reserve (approx. 130 km from Tawau), the Danum Valley Conservation Area and the Maliau Basin Conservation Area.

Palm oil from Malaysia

Malaysia’s oil palm plantations cover more than 5 million hectares. The Southeast Asian country produces around 20 million tons of palm oil annually, putting it in second place after its neighbor, Indonesia. About four fifths of the production is destined for the world market.


To: Mr. Najib Razak, Prime Minister of Malaysia; Mr. Datuk Seri Musa Aman, Chief Minister of Sabah

Dear Prime Minister Najib Razak,
Dear Chief Minister Musa Aman,

Malaysia’s forests are among the world’s most biodiverse. I am deeply concerned about the many thousands of hectares of pristine land – including entire forests – that continue to be destroyed annually for oil palm plantations. Elephants, orangutans, and countless other animal and plant species are losing their habitat as a result.

I am also personally outraged by the poisoning of at least 14 Borneo pygmy elephants in Sabah. The dead elephants were found over a period of four weeks near the edge of the Gunung Rara Forest Reserve, in close proximity to a logging camp and palm oil plantations. The director of the conservation authorities of Sabah believes that palm oil workers put out the poison to keep elephants out of the plantations.

Chief Minister Aman, you have called for a thorough investigation and punishment of the perpetrators. Yet as Chief Minister of the State of Sabah, you share responsibility for the death of the forest elephants: As the head of the state government, you issue permits for logging and palm oil production on rainforest land. Furthermore, you are Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Yayasan Sabah Group, on whose forestry and plantation concessions the forest elephants were poisoned, and on which the Gunung Rara Forest Reserve is located. The clearing of the forest started there precisely at the time when the first dead elephants were discovered – in late 2012.

I call on you to protect Malaysia's nature with its unique wildlife and not to authorize or tolerate further destruction of rainforests, and to restore forest corridors to allow elephants to wander between their remaining habitats.

Thank you very much.


The issue – rainforest on our dinner tables and in our fuel tanks


At 66 million tons annually, palm oil is the most commonly produced vegetable oil. Its low world market price and properties that lend themselves to processed foods have led the food industry to use it in half of all supermarket products. Palm oil can be found in frozen pizzas, biscuits and margarine, as well as body creams, soaps, makeup, candles and detergents.

Few people realize that almost half of the palm oil imported into the EU is used as biofuel. Since 2009, the mandatory blending of biofuels into motor vehicle fuels has been a major cause of deforestation.

Oil palm plantations currently cover more than 27 million hectares of the Earth’s surface. Forests and human settlements have been destroyed and replaced by “green deserts” containing virtually no biodiversity on an area the size of New Zealand.

The impact – suffering and death in producer countries, climate havoc

The warm, humid climate of the tropics offers perfect growth conditions for oil palms. Day after day, huge tracts of rainforest in Southeast Asia, Latin America and Africa are being bulldozed or torched to make room for more plantations, releasing vast amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. As a consequence, Indonesia – the world’s largest producer of palm oil – temporarily surpassed the United States in terms of greenhouse gas emissions in 2015. With their CO2 and methane emissions, palm oil-based biofuels actually have three times the climate impact of traditional fossil fuels.

Palm oil is not only bad for the climate: As their forest habitat is cleared, endangered species such as the orangutan, Borneo elephant and Sumatran tiger are being pushed closer to extinction. Smallholders and indigenous people who have inhabited and protected the forest for generations are often brutally driven from their land. In Indonesia, more than 700 land conflicts are related to the palm oil industry. Human rights violations are everyday occurrences, even on supposedly “sustainable” and “organic” plantations.

As consumers, we are largely unaware of these broader issues, yet our daily palm oil consumption also impacts our health: refined palm oil contains large amounts of harmful fatty acid esters that are known to damage DNA and cause cancer.

The solution – a revolution on our dinner tables and in our fuel tanks

Only 70,000 orangutans still roam the forests of Southeast Asia, yet the EU’s biofuels policy is pushing them to the brink of extinction. Every new plantation on Borneo is destroying a further piece of their habitat. Stepping up the pressure on policymakers is a must if we want to save our tree-dwelling kin. Apart from that, however, there is still a lot we can do in day-to-day life.

Follow these simple tips to recognize, avoid and combat palm oil:

  1. Enjoy a home-cooked meal: Use your imagination: why not try almond-coconut-pear biscuits? Or pizza with potato and rosemary? A meal cooked from fresh ingredients beats processed foods containing palm oil every time. Oils such as sunflower, olive, rapeseed or flaxseed are ideal for cooking and baking.
  2. Read labels: As of December 2014, labeling regulations in the EU require food products to clearly indicate that they contain palm oil. However, in the case of non-food items such as cosmetics and cleaning products, a wide range of chemical names may still be used to hide the use of palm oil. A quick check of your favorite search engine will turn up palm oil-free alternatives, however.
  3. Remember that the customer is king: Ask your retailers for palm oil-free products. Write product manufacturers and ask them why they aren’t using domestic oils. Companies can be quite sensitive to issues that give their products a bad name, so inquiring with sales staff and contacting manufacturers can make a real difference. Public pressure and increased awareness of the problem have already prompted some producers to stop using palm oil.
  4. Sign petitions and write your elected representatives: Online campaigns put pressure on policymakers responsible for biofuels and palm oil imports. Have you already signed all of Rainforest Rescue’s petitions?
  5. Speak out: Protest marches and creative action on the street raise public and media awareness of the issue, which in turn steps up the pressure on policymakers.
  6. Leave your car at home: Whenever you can, walk, ride a bicycle or use public transport.
  7. Be informed and inform others: Big Business and governments would like us to believe that biofuels are good for the climate and that oil palm plantations are sustainable. Spread the word – share this information with your family and friends and encourage them to rethink their consumption habits. It’s in our hands!
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