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Unidentified toxin caused the deaths of Borneo elephants

After three months, officials still don’t know for certain what killed at least 14 Bornean elephants (Elephas maximus borneensis) in the Malaysian state of Sabah. However tests do indicate that the herd perished from a “caustic intoxicant,” possibly ingested accidentally or just as easily intentionally poisoned. A distinct subspecies, Bornean elephants are the world’s smallest with a population that has fallen to around 2,000 on the island.

“In laypersons terms, we would say it is unidentified toxic poisoning [that killed the elephants],” announced, Laurentius Ambu, the Director of the Sabah Wildlife Department (SWD), today. Still the tests conducted in Malaysia, Thailand, and Australia have yet to point to a specific toxin.

When the elephants were found dead in Gunung Rara Forest Reserve, suspicion immediately turned to nearby oil palm plantations and logging concessions, both of which view elephants as pests. Commercial poaching is also significant in the area, although the elephants’ tusks were not removed. As of yet, however, a criminal investigation has turned up nothing.

“This investigation is a top priority for the SWD and the State Government, unfortunately sometimes the process seems slow but we are being thorough and open with our findings throughout,” said SWD Assistant Director Sen Nathan. The government has offered a reward of RM 120,000 ($42,800) for any information on the animals’ deaths.

An action plant has been developed in Sabah for improving conservation of the Bornean elephant, which is hugely imperiled by habitat loss as well as human-wildlife conflict. However, Marc Ancrenaz, the Scientific Director of local NGO, HUTAN-KOCP, says that to date implementation has been wanting.

“We have practical and workable solutions within the State Action Plan, what we do not have is an active collaboration between the various Government agencies, various NGOs and private companies,” he says.

Three-month-old Bornean elephant calf next to dead mother. Officials suspect this elephant, and 13 others, were poisoned. Photo by: Sabah Wildlife Department. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Three-month-old Bornean elephant calf next to dead mother. Officials suspect this elephant, and 13 others, were poisoned. Photo by: Sabah Wildlife Department. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

Map of Sabah showing location of elephant deaths.
Map of Sabah showing location of elephant deaths.

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