Sukau (AsiaNews/Agencies) - In Malaysia, the pygmy elephant is at risk of extinction. The species - a variation of the common elephant - faces the threat of the Malaysian palm oil industry, which is not hesitating to wipe out the remaining specimens in order to defend the plantations.
Groups of pygmy elephants on the island of Malaysian Borneo are encroaching on the palm plantations, which over time have reduced their natural habitat. The animals eat the heart of the oil palm, leading to genuine battles with farmers.
According to WWF estimates, in the northeastern state of Sabah - crossed by the Kinabatagan river - there are 1500 pygmy elephants remaining: they were once considered the descendants of specimens from a private zoo belonging to the sultan of Sulu; now the dominant hypothesis is that they are a subspecies of the more widespread Asian elephant, from which they differ because they are about half a meter shorter (the pygmy elephant reaches a maximum height of 2.5 meters), have a diminutive trunk and large ears, and are generally of a more docile character.
On an ordinary day, they travel one or two kilometers in search of food, eating about 200 kilos of grass, palms, and bananas. But there is an increasing shortage of food because of the spread of villages, the construction of new roads, the creation of new plantations, so that now the animals sometimes have to cover three times their normal daily distance to find enough to eat.
Conflicts with human beings break out when the pygmy elephant encroaches on the palm orchards to eat the fruits of the plants, which are used for a vast variety of products from cooking oil to cosmetics. The oil palm is one of the main resources for the export sector: in Malaysia, there are 4.3 million hectares planted with palm trees, and in Sabah alone, one of the 13 states of the country, there are 1.4 million. In 2008, the palm oil business amounted to 17.64 billion U.S. dollars.
"Human-elephant conflicts occur daily around the Kinabatangan plantations," says Raymond Alfred of the WWF. In some places, the animals are shot or poisoned. "We still need long term solutions," Alfred says.