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Was Palm Oil to Blame for the Poisoning of 14 Pygmy Elephants?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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pygmy elephant babyWhen wildlife officials in Borneo first encountered a three-month-old pygmy elephant on January 25, he was surrounded by death. Four members of his herd lay on the ground around him, their bodies cold and bloody. The baby was nudging his dead mother with his trunk, trying to get her to rise and feed him.

Tragically, the four dead elephants were not the first, nor were they the last. Six bodies had already been found that month, rotting carcasses away in the Gunung Rara Forest Reserve in northeastern Borneo. Four more were found in the days to come. Initial investigations revealed that the dead elephants were all suffering from severe bleeding and gastrointestinal ulcers, most likely caused by poisoning.

The 14 deaths represent a loss of approximately 1 percent of the entire Borneo pygmy elephant (Elephas maximus borneensis) population worldwide, which is estimated at between 1,000 and 1,500 animals.

slain pygmy elephantUnlike elephants poached for their ivory tusks every day, these smaller animals likely died because they got too close to the highly profitable commercial palm oil plantations that have replaced many of Borneo’s forests. Plantation workers have been known to leave out poison for “pest” animals, including elephants. As far back as 2009 the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) warned that pygmy elephants were dying from ingesting these poisons.  At least two plantations and several commercial logging concerns surround Gunung Rara. The area where the dead elephants were found is also set to be converted into plantations.

Palm oil is an inexpensive ingredient used in foods and cosmetics around the world. Palm oil plantations—which have also displaced orangutans and other species—have sprung up all over Borneo and the neighboring island of Sumatra. To make room for them, old-growth rainforests are burned down, often illegally. In some regions deforestation rates have reached 90 percent or more. Not only do these plantations destroy elephants’ habitats and migration corridors, they also pose a secondary threat: Elephants love to eat palm tree fruits, a hunger that puts the animals in continual conflict with plantation workers. Demand for palm oil in Indonesia also decimates rain forests and fuels climate change.

Pygmy elephants, which stand about 2.5 meters (not all much shorter than their mainland cousins) and bear shorter trunks and longer tails, only live in the northeastern corner of Borneo, which is part of Malaysia. (Indonesia and Brunei control the rest of the island.) The elephants were historically thought to be remnants of a 17th-century domesticated herd but DNA tests conducted in 2003 revealed that they are actually a genetically distinct subspecies that diverged from other Asian elephants 300,000 years ago.

The three-month-old orphan who survived the poisoning, now named “Kejora” or “Joe” for short, is being raised at Lok Kawi Wildlife Park, where he appears to be healthy. Yayasan Sabah, the company that holds the largest logging concerns in the region, says it working with the government to investigate the elephant deaths. Meanwhile, wildlife officials are on the search for any more dead elephants in the area, which could be likely because herds usually include dozens of animals. The WWF has called for greater conservation of Sabah’s forest landscapes and long-term plans to protect the pygmy elephants and other species that live in the region.

People often ask me, “What can I do to protect endangered species?” In this particular case there’s a clear answer: avoid all food and cosmetic products that contain palm oil. Although some palm oil is farmed sustainably, most to date is not. Palm oil appears under quite a few different names, so cutting it out of your shopping list can be difficult. The Australian Web site Say No to Palm Oil has the best information.

Photos: Sabah Wildlife Department

John R. Platt About the Author: Twice a week, John Platt shines a light on endangered species from all over the globe, exploring not just why they are dying out but also what's being done to rescue them from oblivion. Follow on Twitter @johnrplatt.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Friend of Borneo 10:51 am 02/5/2013

    Boycotting palm oil products maybe a great personal statement to make but it give a false and dangerous delusion that it will make a difference.

    It will not. Calls to boycott palm oil have raged on for years and Norway and France reported great drops in its use but if you look at the rate of deforestation and loss of habitat for wildlife, it has grown despite all those boycotts. When we boycott a product, we remove ourselves from the negotiating tables and anything we say will have zero influence on the producers and users of palm oil.

    What we need is heavy sustained pressure on the corporations that use palm oil to support sustainable palm oil. Not the overly loose certification by the RSPO but a heightened standard that the Union of Concerned Scientists promotes.

    Link to this
  2. 2. John R. Platt in reply to John R. Platt 11:20 am 02/5/2013

    Thanks for your comment, Friend of Borneo. You’ll notice I didn’t say the word boycott, only avoid, and I did provide a link to more sustainable options.

    All, Friends of Borneo has a website at and a page called Palm Oil Consumers Action to help people demand more sustainable palm oil at

    Link to this
  3. 3. Shoshin 12:14 pm 02/5/2013

    This is just disgusting. The WWF is up their eyeballs in the “ethical” palm oil business.

    Oh wait, they were calling for regulations in 2009. That was BEFORE they went into the business. Now? Nevermind…

    It’s official, ethical palm oil just killed more large mammals than the BP oil spill.

    Funny how that works isn’t it? Where is Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, PETA, etc on this issue?


    Link to this
  4. 4. Friend of Borneo 12:22 pm 02/5/2013

    Thanks for posting the After years of ranting and raging at foreign corporations, I thought it best that we target our own governments and corporations.

    It may not stop the killing and deforestation but at least we won’t be contributing to that.

    Link to this

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