The plight of the palm oil elephants
A species in decline
It is thought that Borneo’s elephants are a subspecies of the endangered Asian elephant (Elephus maximus), although scientists have yet to classify them as such. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Asian elephant populations have dwindled by 50% over the last three generations, as their habitats are shrinking and fragmenting. Adult elephants can spend up to 19 hours a day feeding, and they roam for hundreds of kilometres through grassland, forests and scrubland. Their size means they need large areas of land to live comfortably – but their forest homes are being encroached upon by human homes, plantations and farms. This pressure to find space has led to more and more conflicts between humans and elephants when elephants eat or trample crops. It’s a particularly large problem in Indonesia and Malaysia, where huge areas of forests have been lost to palm oil plantations. The plight of the elephants is perfectly captured in the image above, Palm-oil survivors, by environmental photojournalist Aaron Gekoski. It was in the 2017 Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition. Taken on a cleared palm oil plantation in Borneo, in the Malaysian state of Sabah, three generations of elephants are dwarfed by a scene of devastation around them. With the light fading fast he quickly shot the four majestic mammals, reflecting on how they are ‘dwarfed by a desolate and desecrated landscape’.
The palm oil problem
As with most conservation issues, this is not an easy problem to solve. Malaysia’s economic situation means that palm oil production isn’t going to relent any time soon, because it’s exported in such large quantities. The Malaysian Palm Oil Council reports that the country accounts for 39% of world palm oil production, and 44% of world exports. If you live in a Western country, it’s nearly impossible to avoid products containing the oil, which is derived from the pulp of palm fruit. It’s in soap, processed food and cosmetics. The production of the oil has lifted many Malaysian farmers out of poverty since the cultivation of the plant rapidly increased in the 1960s. Now, it is reported that the industry employs more than half a million Malaysian people. It has also transformed the landscape in Borneo, forcing animals into ever-smaller pockets of their natural habitats. As well as facing habitat loss, elephants come under fire for damaging plantations. Workers consider the animals to be a pest, and resort to poisoning or shooting them to protect the plants.
Caught on camera
Aaron didn’t always know that his calling was environmental journalism. In 2009 he was the co-owner of a modelling agency in London – not exactly deep in the Bornean forest. One day he packed it all in, bought a backpack and left Britain for Asia. He hasn’t looked back since. Over the years, Aaron has filmed and photographed the mass slaughter of turtles in Madagascar, Mozambique’s shark finning crisis, Namibia’s annual seal cull and rhino poaching in Zimbabwe. He is currently working on a project about the wildlife tourism industry. He says, ‘The camera is one of the most powerful weapons ever invented. As photographers we have an opportunity to use our skills for the good of the planet. Over the past decade I have met so many people who are dedicating their lives to conservation. Documenting these animals’ stories with a camera is my way of making a difference.’
The terrible fate of Raja the baby elephant, chained and held hostage by an angry mob: An image that will haunt you and a story that will enrage you
In this shocking expose the Duchess of Cornwall’s brother reveals how baby elephant Raja was shockingly mistreated as he was kept captive in Sumatra. Following the deforestation of the land to produce palm oil, elephants have been forced to live with humans, destroying farms, flattening houses and sometimes killing people. Villagers took Raja, and demanded compensation after his family ruined crops in the area.
In all the 30 years I have been working in Asian elephant conservation, I thought I had seen it all – blatant corruption, the rape and total disregard of our beautiful planet and sickening wildlife atrocities, to name but a few. All due to the most dangerous animal of all: homo sapiens. Not much shocks me any more, but something happened in recent weeks that shook me to the core when the charity Elephant Family and the Ecologist Film Unit set out to document the environmental genocide that is out of control on the island of Sumatra, Indonesia. Sumatra is special to me because I spent a lot of time there on expeditions when I was younger. It was a paradise – vast pristine forests, intact coral reefs and abundant wildlife.
Raja is a male baby elephant found in north Aceh, villagers found him roaming community plantation and held him captive
All this has changed now and their elephants are the most endangered on the planet. In a single generation, the population has been cut in half, with countless other animals disappearing at breakneck speed.
Can you believe that we are now living in a world where people are actually holding baby elephants to ransom? It is almost unthinkable. But just look at the photographs – look at Raja, as he strains against his chains, waving his little trunk for food and reassurance. He is bellowing in desperation for his mother.
Can you believe that we are now living in a world where people are actually holding baby elephants to ransom?
He strains against his chains, waving his little trunk for food and reassurance. He is bellowing in desperation for his mother.
I have heard that sound of distressed calves many times in my life. It never fails to haunt me. But it is his eyes that haunt me more than anything – pleading for help – innocent, desperate and helpless. A war is being waged across Asia. In the face of relentless deforestation, elephants are being forced out of their natural habitats and they have no choice but to share their living space with humans. As the elephants’ forest home is destroyed, stressed and starving herds flee from the chainsaws straight into villages. They demolish everything in sight, trampling crops, flattening houses and often killing people. Frankly, you really cannot blame the villagers for taking such drastic steps in the sheer desperation to survive and feed their own families. Capturing a baby elephant and holding it to ransom is grisly and depressing, but it is reality as humans and elephants fight for space. People need to know why this is happening. They need to understand what is driving this madness.
Mark Shand was shocked when he heard of the destruction of Sumatra’s elephant population
The cause is an innocently named product called palm oil. It’s a constituent part of almost everything that we use and consume – biscuits, margarine, ice cream, soap, shampoo. The list is endless. And the blame lies firmly with the greed of the large corporations in the East that produce it as a cash crop to fuel the insatiable consumerism of the Western world. The thirst for palm oil is apparently unquenchable and its cultivation is ripping out the last great rainforests. Although forest destruction and its lethal impact on endangered species are plain to see, palm oil is practically an invisible ingredient, listed under the generic term ‘vegetable oil’. April, Duta Palma, Sinar Mas and Sime Darby may not be household names, but these are just some of the companies producing palm oil in Indonesia and selling it on to the market for about £500 per ton. L’Occitane, Ferrero, Cadbury, Ginster’s pasties, Clover margarine, Pringles, Kellogg’s, Haribo, Nestlé and Mars are just a few of the more familiar names of those that use palm oil.
Capturing a baby elephant and holding it to ransom is grisly and depressing, but it is reality as humans and elephants fight for space.
April, Duta Palma, Sinar Mas and Sime Darby may not be household names, but these are just some of the companies producing palm oil in Indonesia and selling it on to the market for about £500 per ton
The thirst for palm oil is apparently unquenchable and its cultivation is ripping out the last great rainforests
All the major supermarkets use palm oil in their own-brand products. Some are better than others in getting palm oil from responsible sources, but the point is that it is everywhere and in everything. It is a silent assassin. Not until 2014 will there be a legal requirement for manufacturers to label palm oil on their products. And, to make matters worse, the only certification body to monitor the production of so-called ‘sustainable’ palm oil is immensely flawed. Consumer industries are hiding behind a fallacy. The verdant rainforest of Aceh in North Sumatra is one of the largest left in South-East Asia. It is the only place in the world where elephants, tigers, orang-utans and rhinos all still live together – a real life Jungle Book. But, right now, the Aceh government is close to adopting a plan that would see hundreds of thousands of hectares of this forest opened up for the cultivation of palm oil. This ironically titled ‘Spatial Plan’ is nothing more than a deforestation plan – an extinction plan, seeking to legitimise the illegal felling that is already happening. Environmentalists agree that we need to protect about 65 per cent of Aceh’s forest if we are to save its biodiversity. The government plan would allow for only 45 per cent to be protected – that’s a difference of way over a million hectares, or more than a million football pitches. The result would be a death blow for wildlife.
Ecosystems are cleared for oil palm plantations in Aceh Tamiang. This area is where the habitat was for Sumatran elephants, tigers and orangutans.
Not only will these iconic species be pushed to extinction, the local communities that rely on this forest will be even more exposed to natural disasters. Devastating landslides have already washed away buildings, including entire schools. They will become unrelenting and vast areas of land will flood. Wildlife will be forced into ever greater conflict with people, and elephants like Raja won’t stand a chance. Sadly for him, it is too late. He died alone, still chained to that tree, though Elephant Family worked tirelessly for a week to negotiate his release. Already we’ve discovered that another calf, this one just a month old, has been captured and held to ransom by local farmers. Everyone is working around the clock to make sure that this little calf survives. I am doubtful. But in the grander scheme of things there is hope. If there wasn’t hope, I would have packed up my bags a long time ago. If we can protect these forests and stop the new plan in Aceh from going ahead, then we’re taking a giant step in the right direction. Hundreds of supporters have already written to the Aceh government urging them to stop destroying their forests. But we need help. We need everyone to write. Increased knowledge of palm oil and compulsory labelling will finally allow shoppers to make informed choices about what they buy. We need to push food manufacturers and retailers to support a transformation of the industry towards genuine sustainable palm oil, and we need to do it quickly.
Mark Shand and his sister, The Duchess of Cornwall. He warns that we are close to losing the amazing Asian elephant
I know for a fact that there is a truly powerful will to save these forests and these animals. On July 9 in London, Elephant Family are holding a magnificent masked Animal Ball to raise urgently needed funds that will help us continue our work in Sumatra and across Asia. More than 600 guests are attending in support. I know I should be excited about the ball. In many ways I am, because of the great opportunity it presents for conservation, but on the night I know that I will not be able to get Raja and others like him out of my mind. The Asian elephant barely ever makes the headlines but this is one of the greatest wildlife stories of our time. We are close to losing one of the most enigmatic, iconic and ecologically vital species on the planet. The clock is ticking. Please help us save Sumatra’s elephants by contributing to the Raja Fund at elephantfamily.org.
World’s smallest elephants killed for ivory in Borneo Asian elephants have faced less poaching than their African cousins but the latest grisly finds have led conservationists to worry for their survival Borneo’s elephants are the smallest in the world. Even the planet’s smallest elephants, tucked away on the island of Borneo, are no longer immune to the global poaching crisis for ivory. On New Year’s Eve, wildlife officials in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo, found the bones of a beloved male elephant, nicknamed Sabre for his unusual tusks that slanted downwards like the extinct sabre-toothed tiger’s canines. The discovery of Sabre – he was probably killed in late November – came just days after wildlife officials found a freshly slaughtered male elephant with its face cut off to get at the tusks. Both Sabre and the unnamed male perished within 1.5km of one another, though a month apart. Prior to these events, elephant poaching had not been considered a major issue in Sabah. Benoit Goossens, director of Danau Girang Field Centre in Sabah, said the grisly finds indicated a professional hunter and trader may be setting up business in Sabah. First discovered on a palm oil plantation by conservationists in early October, Sabre had been rescued and moved to Kawang Forest Reserve. Conservationists fitted the bizarrely-tusked pachyderm with a satellite collar and released him into the wild, thinking him safe. “We were obviously wrong,” said Goossens. “There are no words to express our sadness,” said wildlife vet Pakeeyaraj Nagalingam. A member of Sabah’s Wildlife Rescue Unit, Nagalingam aided in Sabre’s rescue and translocation in October. “It looks like there is no safe place for elephants in Sabah any more. The relevant authorities who are responsible for enforcement of illegal wildlife poaching and other illegal activities must work harder and smarter,” he said. Sabre’s tuskless skeleton was found just one day after China announced it would ban the ivory trade by the end of 2017. “The loss of these elephants is especially sad when the world is waking up to the African elephant crisis and closing its domestic ivory markets,” said Elizabeth Bennett, vice president of species conservation at the Wildlife Conservation Society. “Only when all ivory markets are closed and demand for ivory ceases will all of the populations of elephants across Africa and Asia be safe from such poaching.” The taxonomic status of the Bornean pygmy elephant, as it’s popularly known because they are about one fifth smaller than other Asian elephants, is in limbo. Genetic data shows it may have evolved independently for 300,000 years. Some have proposed that the animal should be listed as a separate subspecies. However they wind up classified, the Borneo’s elephants are gravely endangered: only 1,500 to 2,000 survive today in a decreasing habitat fractured by industrial palm oil plantations. Deforestation and habitat loss remain the smallest elephants’ biggest threat. Although considered pests to the state’s expansive palm oil plantations, the elephants are a tourist draw to the region and ecologically support the forests and floodplain through seed dispersal.