Elephant could kickstart U.S. - Malaysia sister city program

July 1, 2014 - 9:18am

Oregon Zoo will play key conservation role in protecting Bornean wildlife

Portland could soon become the first major American city to form a sister city relationship with a Malaysian city, thanks in no small part to the star power of Malaysian Portlander Chendra — an elephant.

Portland and Kota Kinabalu — widely known as KK, the capital of the state of Sabah on the island of Borneo — are considering the possibility of pursuing a sister city relationship. The initiative is a response to a joint-statement made by President Obama and Malaysian Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, encouraging the two nations to explore environment, economic, education and health links.

"Oregon and Sabah are linked not just by Chendra, but by our shared deep commitment to ensuring a sustainable future for our fragile forests and wildlife."

—Joseph Yun, U.S. Ambassador to Malaysia

"The idea of forming a sister city relationship came to me during my wife's and my first visit to Kota Kinabalu, when we learned that the only Bornean elephant in North America was a gift from Sabah to the Oregon Zoo," said Joseph Yun, U.S. Ambassador to Malaysia. "Chendra is the ideal sister city ambassador: a rare animal left orphaned and wounded in the wild, who was given a new life through the generosity of the people of the Portland metro area."

Chendra came to the Oregon Zoo on Nov. 20, 1999, after she was deemed unfit for release back into the wild. Sabahan wildlife officials found her wandering near a palm oil plantation with wounds on her front legs and left eye, which ultimately left her blind in that eye. The Bornean pygmy elephant is the smallest — and most imperiled — of the Asian elephant subspecies. The estimated 2,000 remaining individuals are threatened by deforestation and human conflict, both largely driven by palm oil production.

According to the Oregon Zoo's conservation and research manager Nadja Wielebnowski, the sister city relationship carries the potential for a substantial amount of support, both financial and logistical, to be garnered and used for applied conservation efforts in Sabah — which boasts one of the world's greatest assemblages of charismatic megafauna, including orangutans, elephants, sun bears, clouded leopards and Sumatran rhinos. Dr. Wielebnowski traveled to Sabah last month to explore long-term conservation partnerships in Borneo, where deforestation rates are among the world's highest.

"The last pure remnants of Bornean rainforest are even older than the Amazon rainforests, and there are large remaining areas that need protection," Wielebnowski said. "These forests are home to incredibly unique and highly diverse flora and fauna. They also hold a lot of carbon offset potential and may be one of our big resources in helping to stabilize climate."

For the past five years, the zoo has helped to support the Sabah-based conservation organization KOCP-Hutan on conservation strategies that include 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.

Increased support facilitated by the sister city partnership would expand support to other species and organizations.

"The depth of collaboration between Sabah's Wildlife and Forestry Departments and wildlife NGO's that I witnessed was truly inspiring, and there's a lot of potential for us to support the amazing work they're doing," Wielebnowski said. "Our first step is to coordinate with other U.S. zoos active in Malaysia to make sure we're all working toward most effective conservation outcomes. There are many ways we can help — from creating conservation scholarships to scientific research and community outreach."

Kota Kinabalu and Portland — which lie 7,378 miles apart — share significant similarities including a devoted outdoor recreation culture, respect for their natural heritage, and famous neighboring mountains.

"Preserving the richly diverse but gravely endangered environment of the Sabah rainforests is the key pillar of the Portland-Kota Kinabalu sister city initiative," Ambassador Yun said. "Oregon and Sabah are linked not just by Chendra, but by our shared deep commitment to ensuring a sustainable future for our fragile forests and wildlife. The Oregon Zoo is a vital part of that link because of its dedication to global conservation and its proven expertise in fighting extinction."