It’s not in the least bit surprising that most people haven’t heard of the Borneo pygmy elephant (Elephas maximus borneensis). The elephant endotheliotropic herpes virus (EEHV) is threatening the life of these incredible animals, making it the most endangered elephant on the planet with only 1,500 left in the entire whole world.
The pygmy elephant is considered to be in immediate danger of becoming extinct, with population numbers declining by over 50% in the last 65 years. In addition to infection by this deadly virus, mass deforestation, habitat loss and poaching paint a bleak picture for the survival of the world’s smallest elephant.
Elephant endotheliotropic herpes virus (EEHV) is a pathogenic proboscivirus that attacks the endothelial cells of capillaries causing elephants to literally hemorrhage to death (elephant hemorrhagic disease). EEHV appears to have evolved separately from other mammalian herpes viruses and 80% of acute symptomatic cases are fatal. The virus primarily effects Asian elephant calves between 1- 8 years old. In a fatal attack death can occur within 24 hours and there is no known cure or vaccine.
The pygmy elephant is a subspecies of the Asian elephant and is about one fifth smaller and even more gentle-natured than their Asian counterparts. Walt Disney couldn't have crafted an elephant this cute with over-sized ears, plump bellies and long tails that drag along the ground. Through DNA evidence, scientific research reveals that the pygmy elephant became isolated from its cousins on the mainland of Asia and Sumatra over 300,000 years ago. Over time these elephants became smaller with relatively larger ears, longer tails and straighter tusks.
Seven types of EEHV virus strains have been identified and the virus affects both Asian and African elephants. We also now know that EEHV infection is species specific. EEHV1A, EEHV1B, EEHV4 and EEHV5 are found in Asian elephants, with strains of EEHV1 associated with most lethal infections. African elephants habour EEHV2, EEHV3, EEHV6 and EEHV7. The disease can be treated with the rapid application of antiviral drugs, and has cured elephant calves infected with EEHV1. However, these antivirals are extremely expensive and only effective in a third of cases relying on early detection of infection. Last year a 3 year old Asian elephant born at Woburn Safari Park in the UK defied the odds to beat the virus with 24 hour supervision and antiviral plasma infusions. Specialist vet Nathalie Wissink-Argilaga, who led Tarli’s treatment said, ‘EEHV is the most serious threat to the survival of Asian elephant calves’.
Elephants are being shot and Poisoned
The situation in Borneo for the pygmy elephant is a grave one indeed. As well as the threat of a fatal virus, one of the main reasons that the Borneo pygmy elephant has been certified as endangered by the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is due to habitat loss from deforestation.
Mammals of this size require large areas of forest in which to find sufficient food. As shrinking forests make way for agriculture and palm oil plantations the situation in Borneo is exacerbated as the loss of native plant species make it harder for the elephants to find food. As a result the pygmy elephants are forced on to farmland and palm oil plantations where fruit is in abundance. These powerful animals can consume up to 300lbs of vegetation per day and are viewed as pests by farmers and plantation owners. To protect their livelihoods many have been taking the law in to the own hands and poisoning or shooting the mothers, leaving an increasing number of baby orphan elephants. Although the hunting and killing of elephants is punishable with up to 5 years imprisonment under Malaysia’s Conservation Law, the number of orphans is increasing at an alarming rate. The image of a baby pygmy elephant trying relentlessly to wake its poisoned mother made headlines and has given a powerful visual reference for the pain and suffering felt by the animal orphans of Borneo.
Rising Numbers of Orphans
The Sabah Wildlife Department (SWD) is worried about the increasing number of baby Bornean elephants in Borneo. The number of baby elephants rescued has been increasing steadily over the past 5 years and the trend is worrying and disturbing, said SWD Director William Baya. “I am extremely concerned about what is happening to our Bornean Elephant population in the wild. For the past three years we have rescued an alarming number of baby elephants, all below one year old that were found wandering alone. Though 2018 has just dawned, we have already rescued a significant number of orphans throughout the east coast of Sabah in known human-elephant conflict areas in Tawau, Lahad Datu, Telupid, Kinabatangan and Sandakan”.
The Malaysian government now has challenge the department is facing now is taking care of the rescued baby elephants. “We have a very professional and hardworking team of veterinarians and rangers from the Wildlife Rescue Unit that spend 24 hours a day nursing, feeding and playing ‘surrogate mother’ to these poor babies,” Mr. Baya said. William added that the cost of bringing up rescued baby elephants is not cheap as the milk formula alone costs £1000 per baby elephant per month.
The conflict mitigation in Borneo is extremely complex, not only in terms of habitat but due to the science of genetic diversity within populations of the endemic species compounding the problem. An alarming scientific paper published in an online journal, Biological Conservation by a team of scientists from the UK and Sabah titled: Habitat fragmentation and genetic diversity in natural populations of the Bornean elephant: Implications for conservation,’ concludes of which is essentially that Bornean elephants show low but significant degree of genetic differentiation among populations, and securing connectivity between spatially distinct populations and avoiding further fragmentation within populations is an absolute necessity to conserve the species.
The alarming rate of orphans being rescued, a life-threatening virus and poaching could spell a deadly cocktail that could lead the Bornean elephant on the same trail of extinction as the now extinct in the wild Bornean rhinoceros of Sabah.
The best hope for the long-term survival of Borneo's elephants lies in sustainable forest management for timber production, since elephants can survive and breed in natural forests that are selectively logged. The answer lies in working with plantation managers and owners in key pygmy elephant habitat in an effort to create reforested wildlife corridors that allow elephants and other species to move freely between natural forests.
Science, commitment, passion and hope are all essential to protect the future of this species as well as countless others in Borneo.