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 )

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.

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.

A baby elephant standing over the body of its dead mother, touching her head with its trunk Photo: picture alliance / dpa ( © picture alliance / dpa )

Mar 22, 2013

Over 100,000 signatures for elephant conservation in Malaysia

Earlier this year, the image of a tiny elephant calf trying in vain to awaken his dead mother with his trunk moved people around the world. The poisoning of 14 endangered Borneo pygmy elephants in the Malaysian state of Sabah met with incomprehension and indignation.

More than 100,000 people took part in our “Malaysia sacrifices its elephants for palm oil” campaign alone – more than ever before.

The protests are beginning to show results in the Southeast Asian country. The Forestry Director of Sabah took note of our campaign in Malaysian newspaper Daily Express: [The images have] attracted so much global attention that even the Prime Minister and Chief Minister are receiving ‘blog petitions’ with close to 100,000 hits. Suddenly, Sabah is in the world map for the wrong reasons.” He noted that prestigious international publications are already calling for a boycott of palm oil from Sabah, and that it would take hard work to restore the state’s damaged reputation.

International support strengthens local environmentalists

While Indonesia’s destruction of rainforests for palm oil plantations has been in the headlines around the world for years, Malaysia has long escaped such scrutiny. Together, the two countries produce about 90 percent of the world’s palm oil.

Malaysia is now in the public eye and can no longer conceal its deforestation. Public attention from abroad is strengthening the bargaining position of local environmental organizations against the palm oil companies, which can no longer afford to simply ignore the demands of environmental groups and conservationists. On February 28, Sabah Chief Minister Musa Aman met with six environmental groups. The Borneo Post reported on the gathering in an article titled Govt keen to work on environmental protection with organisations.

The environmentalists’ central demand is for the protection of further forest areas of the state’s Yayasan Sabah concession. Chief Minister Aman was positive about the points raised and said that he wants to work on their implementation. It remains to be seen, however, whether this is a serious intention or mere campaign posturing. Elections will be held in June at the latest, and the political situation in Sabah is very tense. For the first time, the opposition has a realistic chance to win the elections.

The clearing of further rainforest areas must be stopped

To date, nearly two-thirds of the government’s Yayasan Sabah concession – around 600,000 hectares – has been assigned various protection categories. Once under protection, the complete clearance of the forest and the land’s conversion into palm oil plantations and the like should no longer be possible. Of the remaining 400,000 hectares, nearly 200,000 hectares have been planted with industrial monocultures, in particular oil palm and acacia, and another 200,000 hectares are set to follow.

For 30 years, the government-owned Yayasan Sabah Group run by Sabah Chief Minister Musa Aman has plundered the forests on the concession of the same name – an area of one million hectares. Almost all of the large rainforest trees there have been felled and exported worldwide as tropical hardwood. The supposedly sustainable tropical forest management was a fiction, while the business acted as a pure logging and clear-cutting operation. Musa Aman diverted millions of dollars from the group, depositing the money around the world – in the Swiss UBS bank and elsewhere.

Industrial plantations spread at the expense of forests

With its ruthless exploitation of the forest, the Yayasan Sabah Group has destroyed the basis of its own business. Now the group has gone into industrial oil palm and acacia plantations on a massive scale. Its subsidiaries have established around 135,000 hectares of oil palm monocultures alone on rainforest soil – Benta Wawasan Sdn Bhd: roughly 30,000 hectares, Sri Jaya Industri Sdn Bhd: 20,000 hectares, Asas Juta Sdn Bhd: 35,000 hectares, B. W. Plantations Sdn Bhd: 5,380 hectares, Jeroco Plantations Sdn Bhd: 14,000 hectares, and Sabah Softwoods Bhd: 25,000 hectares. Thousands of hectares more have been used for acacia monocultures.

According to the will of Musa Aman, a further 100,000 hectares of oil palms will be planted in the next three years. The government-run Yayasan Sabah Group that he heads is already clearing the rainforest for the new plantations. Not only are the Borneo pygmy elephants and thousands of other animal and plant species losing their habitat, they are apparently being decimated intentionally.

Wild animals decimated in favor of industrial plantations

The 14 dead pygmy elephants were found very close to the new clearings and existing oil palm plantations. “The elephants ate rat poison. That’s how the plantation workers prevent the animals from eating the fruit of the oil palm”, suspects Laurentius Ambu, director of the local conservation authority.

Moreover, it is an ongoing problem. Individual poisoned elephants are found frequently in the rainforest, yet they do not draw as much attention as the poisoning of an entire herd, as the Daily Express reports in Poisoning of elephants nothing new.

Critics are not welcome in Malaysia

Environmentalists complain that Malaysia appears to maintain blacklists of critical activists. Foreigners can expect immediate deportation if they openly criticize the palm oil industry and rainforest deforestation. Even an Australian senator was recently expelled.

Rainforest Rescue urges the Malaysian government to take criticism seriously instead of suppressing it. Not the frank words of citizens and environmentalists are damaging the country’s reputation, but the policy of rainforest destruction and the machinations of timber and plantation companies. These require the government’s scrutiny – not Malaysia’s concerned citizens.

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.

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