HUTAN ASIAN ELEPHANT CONSERVATION PROJECT
A Project of Woodland Park Zoo's Partners for Wildlife
About the Project
The Kinabatangan river floodplain represents one of the last vestiges of Borneo’s elephants. 50 years ago, nearly 90 percent of the lands of Sabah, located on the northern tip of Borneo, were covered in equatorial forests. Today, protected forests cover 13% of the total land area. Unfortunately most of these protected forests are highly degraded and fragmented into 128 distinct forest reserves, wildlife sanctuaries and parks, many of which are in hilly or mountainous regions, or too small to be suitable habitats for the elephant. Recently studies have identified four Major Elephant Ranges (MER) in the state. More than 60% of these MER are found outside of protected areas in lands encompassing a large agricultural matrix, so it is imperative that a successful elephant conservation strategy must be designed at the landscape level. More than half of the current elephant population today is found in the commercial timber production forests of the interior of the state.
In addition, oil palm plantations cover 18% of Sabah’s total landmass. Although these plantations are established on privately owned land, this forest conversion fragments the remaining elephant populations, further isolating them from one another. Oil palm plantations are often adjacent to wildlife habitat and are frequently raided by elephants causing severe economic losses to the planters who defend themselves by erecting electric fences or digging trenches, further fragmenting wildlife habitat and sometimes resulting in elephant injury or death.
The most destructive crop raiding is done by smaller groups of elephants coming into fields at night. These groups make less noise and are more difficult to track. Single bull elephants are the most efficient at raiding as they travel quickly and are very silent. To mitigate the raids, an elephant team tracks the elephants during the day in order to know where they are most likely to raid crops at night. The team can then inform local farmers and accompany them to scare the raiding elephants away. Usually lights, human voices and noise cannons are enough to inform the elephants that people are in the field and they simply go away.
Not Just Elephants, Hornbills Too
Elephant forests are home to other endangered species. After meeting at a 2011 conservation summit held by Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, Hutan has partnered with another Woodland Park Zoo Partner for Wildlife, the Hornbill Research Foundation, to bring hornbill conservation into the forefront of their field efforts in Asia.
Eight species of hornbill occur along the Kinabatangan River in varying densities. In 2012, a rapid assessment of the Hutan hornbill population and habitat was conducted in conjunction with Dr. Pilai Poonswad of the Hornbill Research Foundation. Recent surveys and interviews show that most species were slowly declining due to a lack of large trees and natural nest cavities. Programmatic elements including better understanding of the breeding ecology of hornbills, potential use of nest boxes and a network of interested partners are currently underway.
About Asian Elephants
Thought to be descended from imported elephants, recent studies have confirmed that Bornean elephants are actually endemic to the island, colonizing during the late Pleistocene glaciation event, and greatly increasing its importance in terms of biodiversity. Current estimates reveal that about 2,000 elephants are surviving in Borneo, most in eastern Sabah in highly fragmented populations. These elephants live in two main social units: the family unit with a matriarch, daughters and offspring, and bull groups of often unrelated males. It is these males that cause the most extensive crop damage because of their high-energy food requirements.
In the Field
In 2012, Hutan was merged with the Honorary Wildlife Wardens to create Wildlife Warden and Conflict Mitigation, or WWCM, to gain efficiency in the field. The unit is responsible for enforcing the law through continuous patrolling, mitigating conflicts with elephants, studying elephant movement and ecology, implementation of the Elephant State Action Plan, and supporting other conservation units. WWCM represents 10 full-time field research assistants hired from the local community. The Hutan Asian Elephant Conservation Project is run by Drs. Marc Ancrenaz and Isabelle Lackman, giving villagers and land owners practical solutions to potential wildlife problems.
At the Zoo
Elephants need zoos to help their cousins in the wild. Studies on elephant biology and behavior would be challenging or impossible in the field. Working with populations in zoos has a positive effect on conservation, and the information gathered is relevant to helping and understanding wild populations. Virtually everything we know about elephant reproductive physiology, low frequency and olfactory communication, DNA testing of elephant populations to track poached ivory, and elephant cognitive ability comes from studies on elephants in zoos. Additionally, zoos can reach millions of visitors annually to educate about sustainable lumber and palm oil, inspiring action that can positively impact elephants in the wild.
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