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Deep rumbles from the rainforest reverberated through the air and reflect off the sedate river, as the sound of stressed vegetation giving way to brute force pierced the scorching afternoon lull. An earthy smell wafted through the thick, humid air before a sharp trumpet confirmed our suspicions, elephants were approaching the Kinabatangan river

One by one they came closer to the edge of the undergrowth, dry grey hides brushed through the fragmented vegetation that tried to keep them hidden from view. At overhanging sections, a trunk would pass down into the river to drink. Younger elephants were less graceful as they excitedly slipped into the river, offering immediate relief from the savage tropical heat. The herd eventually revealed itself. 

The Wild Island

At 743,330 square kilometers, Borneo is the third largest island in the world. And while it represents less than one percent of the Earth’s landmass, the island harbors some six percent of the planet’s biodiversity in its rich, tropical rainforest, which is among the oldest in the world, having formed 140 million years ago. The Bornean rainforest is an important refuge for many endemic forest species, not only the pygmy elephant but the endangered Bornean orangutan, the Sumatran rhinoceros, and the Bornean clouded leopard.

The phrase 'wild man from Borneo' is a term often used to describe someones ruggedness (even though it's a 1940s American film title), because Borneo has always been viewed as a truly wild location, ever since stories trickled back to the UK from explorers in the 1800s. Now that we no longer rely on Chinese whispers, the general awareness of Borneo as a natural paradise, full of orang-utans, rhinos and elephants is still prominent worldwide. However this is quickly becoming a pipe-dream, with only pockets of beautiful biodiversity remaining as strongholds for these charismatic species. Infamous palm oil, continues to spread like a political, financial and unsustainable forest fire. 

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The island ecology evolved to be covered by vast tropical forests, from cloud forest to lowland tropical rainforest, where pygmy elephants are found. 

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Metaphorical dark clouds, as ominous as this storm are lingering over the Kinabatangan.

Modern Borneo

Standing Strong

A canopy tree stands guard on the boundary of Tabin nature reserve, Sabah, as palm oil plantations come right up to the boundary edge. 

According to the World Wildlife Fund, Borneo has lost more than half of its forests, a third of which have vanished in the past three decades alone. In an effort to curb habitat and biodiversity loss on the island and preserve what remains of the rainforest, WWF has played a key role the Heart of Borneo initiative, a multinational program that was initiated by a joint declaration of Brunei, Indonesia, and Malaysia in 2007. Its objective has been to conserve the biodiversity of the surviving rainforest—a swath of land covering some 220,000 square kilometers—“for the benefit of the people who rely upon it through a network of protected areas, sustainable management of forests, and other sustainable land uses.” Among the forest-dwelling inhabitants are a million indigenous Dayaks.

But the habitat niche the elephants have carved out for themselves over the millennia is now under siege, vanishing hectare by hectare as more and more of the forest they inhabit is cleared for palm plantations—the world having become dependent on the oil extracted from the trees. Used in a vast range of products from food items to makeup, the oil is currently the cheapest vegetable derived product on the market. Ninety percent of its production takes place within this region of Southeast Asia.

Rapid expansion of the palm oil industry is due in part to the fact that high demand can be met thanks to quick growth times and large yields. Indonesia plans to double its annual palm oil production, from 20 million tons to 40 million tons by 2020. As an export, palm oil has superseded timber, which might sound like a step forward in slowing deforestation in this region. Unfortunately, it is not the case, with increasing pressures to turn all possible lands over to this booming monoculture.

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Palm oil is so relied upon that land, right up to park boundaries is exploited for palm cultivation.

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The vast monoculture is disastrous for biodiversity, with only the most adaptable species able to survive, including rodents and snakes, which are dangerous to the workers.

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There are established reserves such as the immense Mt. Kinabalu National Park, which act like islands of biodiversity.

Kinabatangan River

Famous for fantastic wildlife viewings, the Kinabatangan river is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Borneo. It has it all, elephants, orang-utans, proboscis monkeys and plentiful bird species. The reason we can see all this is distressing. 

The palm oil industry is now expanding into protected parks and terrain once deemed too rugged for farming, as evidenced by the recent encroachment of palm plantations on the Lower Kinabatangan River, one of the most popular wildlife tourism destinations in the region. The fauna here, which includes some 300 pygmy elephants, are essentially trapped in a small sliver of forest between the riverbank and plantations, leaving but a small patch of woodland that in some places is just a few trees thick.

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The Kinabatangan is a magical place, teeming with wildlife, but if more isn't done to protect and expand the habitat then it is living on borrowed time

During an extended stay, I witnessed first hand the development pressures on the remaining stands of rainforest as a 100-square-meter area across the river from Sukau jetty, where boats pick up large numbers of tourists, was cleared for palm oil production.

Pygmy Elephants

Seeking security

Found only in the Malaysian state of Sabah, the pygmy elephants (Elephas maximus borneensis) are a subspecies of the Asian elephant and number roughly 1,500. While an African elephant generally stands four meters tall, and mainland Asian elephants three meters, pygmy elephants are roughly two and a half meters tall, with diminutive tusks, floor length tails, and out of proportion bellies and heads.

Roaming in herds, these grazers carve paths through the otherwise impassable rainforest, creating natural highways for other species to explore. The tropical nomads, whose herds can number more than 80, have vast territories to ensure there is enough vegetation to sustain them, while not irreversibly destroying the environment they leave behind. Because of the intense heat in this region, elephants are never far away from a large water source to quench their thirst and enjoy a much-needed soak.


An animal of the size of the pygmy elephant requires substantial territory for foraging. As a result palm plantations are unfortunately an inevitable part of this animal’s range. It has become commonplace for elephants to wander onto plantations to feed on felled palm trees. In the process, they often damage crops and interrupt the harvesting process, which in turn has led to numerous conflicts. In an attempt to keep elephants away, workers are employing increasingly aggressive tactics, including the burning of tires. Water sources in the area are contaminated and unsafe to drink. Prolonged stays in these regions can have fatal consequences for the elephants. 

Sabah’s wildlife department and wildlife rescue unit work have been working alongside WWF Malaysia in an effort to manage this situation when possible by pushing herds out of conflict areas and back into relative safety of the riverbank rainforest. Although these relocation efforts are known to be stressful on the herds, they have proven to be an effective means of minimizing fatalities. But far more must be done to limit the expansion of palm farming to protect wildlife areas and corridors not only for pygmy elephant populations, but for other species endemic to Borneo, a globally recognized biodiversity hotspot.

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Extracts from this photo story were originally published in an article I wrote for the 2015 Winter Issue of the Explorers Journal magazine for the Explorers Club. https://explorers.org

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