Friday, December 24, 2010

Sabah: Kinabatangan - Elephants and Oil Palm

In the.eastern part of the Malaysian state of Sabah lives a small population of Asian elephants (Elephas maximus). They are the only elephants in Borneo, and how they got there has long been an intriguing puzzle.

Elephants do not seem to be a part of Borneo's original fauna. There are no traditions of them in local folklore on the rest of the island, and no subfossil remains have been found to show that the existing population was once more widespread. Are Borneo's elephants simply the descendants of animals brought in from the continent by humans? That seemed to be the best solution until a researcher found that not only were the Bornean animals smaller than their continental cousins, but their DNA differed so much from that of mainland animals that the continental and island populations must have been separated for some 300,000 years.

Borneo's elephants, then, did not hail from the continent. However, they still did not seem to be the remains of a once-larger native population. Where, then, did they come from? And why are they restricted to only this one corner of Borneo's northeast?

An ingenious solution to these questions was recently suggested by a noted authority on all things Bornean, Gathorne Hardy, the 5th Earl of Cranbrook.

Lord Cranbrook, with his colleagues Junaidi Payne and Charles Leh, discovered that although the Sabah elephants differed from the elephants of mainland Asia, their bones were a close match to the remains of a population of elephants that once lived on the island of Java. Java's elephants probably became extinct around the latter half of the fourteenth century, at a time when powerful sultanates ruled the waters of the East Indies. Diplomatic relations among the sultans required the exchange of gifts, and an elephant was a royal present. 

Lord Cranbrook found evidence of a tradition that a Sultan of Java had presented some elephants to the Sultan of Sulu before the Javan population finally disappeared, and that some of the animals on Sulu had either escaped or been deliberately released in what is now Sabah (the Sultan of Sulu's territory included a broad swath of northeastern Borneo). That would explain why Borneo's elephants are confined to Sabah, and why they differ from other Asian elephants but do not show the features of a native population. It would also mean that the elephants of Sabah are, in reality, the last Javan elephants on Earth. [Thanks to Lord Cranbrook for correcting some of the details here - this posting is a revised version of my first attempt.]

Despite coming up with what may be the best solution to Borneo's elephant mystery, Lord Cranbrook had never actually seen a Bornean elephant in the flesh. The place to remedy this is the forest bordering Sabah's Kinabatangan River, and Eileen and I were delighted when Lord Cranbrook invited us to join him, on May 2-4, on a quest for the elephants of Sabah. 

I had been to the Kinabatangan before, on my first trip to Borneo in 1992 (long before I met, and married, my Malaysian wife). Back then, wildlife tourism to the area was in its infancy. Today it is big business - but, thanks to the explosion of an even bigger business, the forest along the river is no longer what it was.

As your boat carries you along the river, past magnificent rainforest trees, you might be forgiven for thinking that all is well here and that the ecosystem and its wildlife are secure.

 A broader view, however, reveals a truer picture.  Away from a narrow strip along the river, the forest is severely degraded, and behind the the trees lining the banks you can see the serried ranks of oil palm -- at once one of the greatest sources of income, and one of the greatest environmental concerns, in Southeast Asia.

 In places the oil palms press so close to the forest that they seem about to push the rainforest into the river.

Sabah has committed itself heavily to oil palm and the undoubted wealth it brings.  In the past couple of decades the acreage given over to oil palm plantations has increased tenfold, to a current level of some 1.4 million hectares.  The environmental cost is of course considerable, and one of Lord Cranbrook's causes - given that oil palm is clearly not going to go away - is to convince the industry to carry on its business with as close an eye to conservation as possible.

Where does the advance of oil palm leave the elephants of the Kinabatangan (not to mention the other wild creatures that live there)?  It is hard to say, particularly on the basis of a short visit.  Certainly it risks bringing the elephants, who now enter the plantations on a regular basis, more and more into conflict with humans. 

On the other hand, the presence of elephants along the river bank - where we found them with surprising ease, during our first excursion on the river - may be their salvation.

We were lucky enough to join several other boats watching the animals at surprisingly close range as they bathed, apparently without the slightest concern as to our presence, in the river and chomped their way through the local vegetation.  The superb views we all were able to have may be part of the reason that the forest, or what is left of it, is still there.  If ecoutourists abandon the Kinabatangan there may be little incentive to keep the last of the forest trees from falling before the oil palm's advance (despite laws in Sabah forbidding the plantations from extending all the way to the edge of a watercourse).

Visiting the Kinabatangan today, then, can be a decidedly mixed pleasure - but one that no wildlife-loving traveler to Borneo should miss.  In my next few postings I will try to share some of the many non-pachydermatous delights of our visit - but first, here is a bit of video of our chief targets, in their element (and of the tourists watching them).

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