Zoo to explore Borneo conservation partnerships

May 20, 2014 - 1:53pm

Staff seeks to boost support for Malaysian elephant, orangutan programs

With a list of residents including rhinos, orangutans, pygmy elephants and sun bears, Malaysian Borneo is home to one of the greatest assemblages of charismatic megafauna outside of Africa. This week, Oregon Zoo staff will travel there in search of something equally elusive: a long-term long-distance relationship.

The zoo's conservation and research manager, Nadja Wielebnowski, will bridge the 8,000-mile gap on Thursday as the first step in building partnerships with Malaysian organizations working to protect wildlife in one of the world's most threatened biodiversity hotspots.

"Malaysia is one many countries where the Oregon Zoo is supporting on-the-ground conservation efforts," Wielebnowski said. "The goal of this trip is to get a better understanding of conservation issues, what is being done to alleviate them within the country, and how we can best build effective and productive long-term partnerships."

The trip follows five years of supporting Sabah-based Hutan-Kinabatangan Orangutan Conservation Program, which works to research, protect and reduce human-wildlife conflict for species including orangutans and elephants. Wielebnowski will use part of her visit to assess how the zoo can bolster conservation efforts for both of these species.

With smaller bodies, oversized ears and perpetual baby-faces, Borneo pygmy elephants are the most Disney-esque — and imperiled — of the Asian elephant subspecies. Around 1,500 are believed to survive in Borneo, where palm oil industry-driven deforestation has reduced their range and increased conflict with humans.

Chendra, a much-beloved member of the Oregon Zoo's elephant family, came to Portland after being found orphaned and injured near a Borneo palm oil plantation. She is the only Borneo pygmy elephant living in North America.

Hutan-KOCP's zoo-supported conservation strategies have included purchasing river corridors used as "elephant highways" and working with plantation owners to address an ineffective electrical fence system that often traps elephants inside plantations instead of keeping them out.

Wielebnowski hopes that increased financial support will help organizations like Hutan-KOCP to do even more.

"A partnership offers more than financial benefits," Wielebnowski said. "We can also offer expertise such as possible animal enrichment for captive-held animals at wildlife rehabilitation centers and support for education and public awareness programs where resources are scarce or otherwise lacking. Strengthening our conservation partnerships will not only benefit wildlife in Malaysia but help inspire our Pacific Northwest community to take action."