Zoo joins fight to save world's smallest elephants

March 10, 2015 - 4:12pm

New project aims to make peace between Borneo's people and pachyderms

With its oversized ears, everlasting baby face and gentle demeanor, the Borneo pygmy elephant is a cartoon come to life. But inherent cuteness has not been enough to save it from the threat of extinction.

Fewer than 2,000 of the little-known pachyderms remain, and their kind may disappear before most people ever knew they existed. Their future now hinges on a global solution to a local problem: how to make peace between mega-herbivores and humans whose livelihoods depend on agriculture.

"When you are a local villager and you see your orchard or your crop being completely destroyed overnight, of course you feel very, very angry about it," said Dr. Marc Ancrenaz, scientific director for Borneo-based conservation organization HUTAN. "Elephants need forests to survive, and people need to convert the forest into other types of land uses, like agriculture, to survive, hence the conflict between people and elephants."

This month, the Oregon Zoo Foundation committed $30,600 over three years to protect Borneo's last elephants. Implemented by HUTAN, the Sabah Wildlife Department, Danau Girang Field Center and the communities of Kinabatangan, the Forest Elephant Project takes a top-down approach to conservation. Efforts include legislation, research, purchasing critical migration corridors and working with communities to elephant-proof their crops.

At the core of human-elephant conflict in Borneo is deforestation, largely driven by the production of palm oil, a popular vegetable oil used globally in products ranging from toothpaste to pastries. Agricultural workers sometimes kill or injure elephants when they raid plantations, and the clashes can also separate calves from their herds. The Oregon Zoo's own Chendra — the only Bornean elephant in North America — was orphaned this way.

"Since Chendra's arrival at the Oregon Zoo in 1999, the conditions for wild elephants in Borneo have considerably worsened and will continue to deteriorate unless we intervene," said conservation and research manager Dr. Nadja Wielebnowski. "We're supporting this project because it's a comprehensive, well-planned strategy with a high likelihood of success."

The first line of defense in human-elephant conflict is largely a hardware approach. Electric fences and training communities to peacefully repel marauding pachyderms are two such tactics. But according to Ancrenaz, elephant-proofing only works in tandem with viable travel alternatives for elephants, such as corridors along waterways. That takes money, but also a detailed understanding of elephant migration patterns, land-use planning and backing from the government — all part of Ancrenaz's plan.

"This work is happening 8,000 miles from Portland, but the world is now a very small place," Ancrenaz said. "People who care in one part of the world can have an impact on another, and zoos create these emotions, especially with young kids. And to me this is the most important role a zoo could have. It's to raise awareness to support in situ conservation and to explain to the audience what are the real issues."

In addition to the Oregon Zoo, Forest Elephant Project partners include the Woodland Park Zoo, Houston Zoo, Arcus Foundation and World Wildlife Fund.

The Oregon Zoo Foundation supports the zoo's regional and global conservation efforts, funding projects to protect threatened and endangered species and their habitats. To learn more about the foundation's conservation endowment or other ways to get involved, visit oregonzoo.org/support or contact 503-220-5770.

Photos courtesy HUTAN-KOCP