“Caustic Intoxicant” Indicated in the Deaths of Sabah’s 14 Elephants

Baby Pygmy Elephant

“Caustic Intoxicant” Indicated in the Deaths of Sabah’s 14 Elephants

The investigation into the dead Bornean pygmy elephants (Elephas maximus borneensis) found in the central forests of Sabah in Gunung Rara early this year is still on-going with latest results coming from Thailand. “The histopathological analysis found what is referred to as ‘caustic intoxicant’.  In laypersons terms, we would say it is unidentified toxic poisoning,” stated the Director of the Sabah Wildlife Department (SWD), Datuk Dr. Laurentius Ambu at a Press Conference held at their headquarters in Kota Kinabalu this morning.

However, according to the Director it was still not known what type of toxin was responsible for the lesions, if it was administered deliberately or accidently consumed by the elephants. Unfortunately, extensive testing carried out in Malaysia and Thailand has yet to provide confirmation on the type of toxins the elephants consumed in part due to high rate of decomposition.

“We sent samples to various institutions in Malaysia and to Mahidol University and Ramathibodi Poisons Centre and the Armed Forces Research Institute of Medical Science both in Thailand as well as to the Queensland Biosecuity Sciences Laboratory in Australia in our efforts to throw a wide net and ensure that all possibilities were tested for,” said SWD Veterinarian Dr. Roza Sipangkui.

The laboratory in Australia is still processing the samples and the results will be released by the SWD once they receive them, added Dr. Sipangkui. “We are also awaiting results for Elephant Endotiliotropic Herpes Virus testing. So far this virus has never been detected in Malaysia but the Veterinary Research Institute in Ipoh is conducting these analyses to rule out this possibility, as we are detemined to check every avenue,” said SWD Assistant Director Dr. Sen Nathan.

Numerous tests investigating microbiology, parasitological, toxicology, bacteriological, virological and histopathological aspects have been done since January. However obtaining the necessary authorisations to export samples of species protected under Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and strict import rules enforced by Government’s of Thailand and Australia for biological substances delayed the sending of the samples for a month.  The samples were finally sent overseas on the 6th of March to Thailand and the 13th of March to Australia with the assistance and facilitation of SWD partner EcoHealth Alliance.

“This investigation is a top priority for the SWD and the State Government, unfortunately sometimes the process seems slow but we are being thorough and open with our findings throughout,” said Dr. Sen. Thousands of posters advertising the reward of RM120,000 for information have also been distributed throughout plantations in the Gunung Rara area as well as villagers and the close by towns of Tawau and Semporna. “We have been working closely with the Police every step of the way, as they are leading this criminal investigation,” added Dr. Sen.

Keroja Sabah

Keroja, the baby pygmy elephant of the mother than was killed

The SWD also admitted that they need more resources to monitor areas of wildlife conflict and acknowledged that better coordination between the different government agencies such as the Sabah Forestry Department and Sabah Foundation is essential, according to the Director. “Frequent and large scale patrolling is critical to avoid such conflict from happening again.  However, given the vast area that requires patrolling, it is a massive task for the SWD,” according to WWF-Malaysia Executive Director/CEO, Dato’ Dr Dionysius S K Sharma. Dionysius also stressed that more resources, including manpower, hardware and finances, should be allocated for the Department.

“Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs), such as WWF-Malaysia, Danau Girang Field Centre (DGFC), HUTAN – Kinabatangan Orang-utan Conservation Programme, EcoHealth Alliance, Borneo Conservation Trust, Borneo Rhino Alliance and others provide a vital role in filling in the gaps for us in the field,” acknowledged Dr. Laurentius.

Citing the 2012 to 2016 State Action Plan for the Bornean Pygmy elephants, Dr. Marc Ancrenaz, Scientific Director of HUTAN – KOCP shared that the solutions for the issues faced by the elephants have been addressed within this document, which was done after much consultation between various groups.

 “We have practical and workable solutions within the State Action Plan, what we do not have is an active collaboration between the various Government agencies, various NGOs and private companies,” stated Ancrenaz wildlife veterinarian with 15 years of experience with human wildlife conflict in Sabah. “All conversion approvals need to be reviewed by the SFD and assessed not purely from commercial but the endangered species and landscape ecology perspectives”, added Dionysius.

Currently, the SWD is working together with DGFC and WWF-Malaysia to satellite -collar about 20 to 30 elephants in order to identify the best areas for the establishment and preservation as Wildlife Corridors within the changing landscape and Central Sabah Managed Elephant Range in general but specifically in the Gunung Rara Forest Reserve.

“Moreover, in collaboration with WWF-Malaysia, we plan to fit satellite collars on 20 to 30 elephants from several herds in central Sabah. We will then monitor their movements and ranging patterns in order to identify the best areas for conservation and propose the establishment of elephant corridors,” DGFC, Director Dr Benoit Goossens.

This program began in middle of last month with SWD’s Wildlife Rescue Unit satellite collaring an adult female from the herd, in hopes of identify the movements of the herd within the changing landscape in Gunung Rara/Kalabakan region, and to understand what could have happened to the 14 elephants that died last January.

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