Malaysian police arrested four men and seized guns Wednesday in connection with the brutal killing of a Borneo pygmy elephant, whose body was found with over 70 bullet wounds and its tusks removed.
The male animal’s mutilated corpse was discovered last week half-submerged in a river, tied by a rope to a tree on the bank, in Sabah state on Malaysian Borneo.
It was the latest death of an endangered pygmy elephant, whose numbers have been dwindling because they are targeted by poachers for their tusks and as agricultural plantations expand into their jungle habitat.
Three Malaysians and a foreigner — aged 48 to 68 — were arrested in raids around Tawau district following a tip-off from a member of the public, senior police official Peter Umbuas said.
He did not reveal the nationality of the foreigner.
A shotgun, two home-made rifles and bullets were seized, he said.
“We have applied for remand of the four suspects to assist our investigations,” Umbuas told AFP. “We are also trying to recover the tusks.”
The suspects were involved in cultivating palm oil and lived in a village on the edge of the jungle.
The men are being investigated under wildlife laws that ban the hunting of pygmy elephants, and face up to five years in jail and a hefty fine if found guilty.
They are also being probed under laws that ban possession of imitation guns.
There are only around 1,500 surviving Borneo pygmy elephants, a subspecies that — despite the name — can reach a height of up to three metres (10 feet), according to the international conservation group WWF.
Rainforest-clad Borneo is the world’s third-largest island and is shared between Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei.
The jungle was so thick that Emmanuel Olabode only found the elephants he was tracking when the great matriarch’s sniffing trunk reached out close enough to almost touch.
“She flapped her ears, blocking us to guard her family, then left in peace,” recalls Olabode. “It was extraordinary.”
The elusive elephants are just 100 kilometres (60 miles) from downtown Lagos, Nigeria’s economic capital, home to over 20 million people.
“They are scared of humans,” says Olabode, who leads the Forest Elephant Initiative, a conservation group in the Omo Forest, northeast of Africa’s biggest city. “So they are active at night.”
Forest elephants are the shy relations of their larger savannah cousins and are experts at hiding; so skilled, in fact, very few in the city know about them.
The crowded concrete jungle of Lagos is better known for wild nightlife than nighttime wildlife.
“When people hear about the elephants, they do not believe it,” says Joy Adeosun, a government scientist working with Olabode.
“They are in shock,” adds Adeosun, fixing a motion-sensitive camera that has not only snapped elephants, but antelope, buffalo and chimpanzees too.
Last pristine rainforest
Omo, spreading across some 1,325 square kilometres (510 square miles) of southwestern Ogun state, was protected as a government reserve nearly a century ago.
A UNESCO “biosphere reserve” of global importance, it is one of the last patches of pristine rainforest left in Nigeria.
Nigeria’s deforestation rates are among the highest in the world, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization.
“Chopping down trees is easy,” says Olabode, whose team of eight community rangers are overstretched.
“But if the forest goes, the whole ecosystem changes. The rains reduce, then the farms lose fertility. Everyone suffers.”
Half of the forest, a 650-square-kilometre (250-sqaure-mile) area, is reserved for wildlife and logging is banned.
But corruption is rampant.
“There are so many trees here,” says Ibiyinka James, on one of dozens of trucks illicitly laden with ancient hardwoods, off to become planks for the booming construction market in Africa’s most populous nation.
“The birds can fly to another forest,” he adds.
And with trees cleared, farmers plant crops.
“I need to provide for my family. What else can I do?”, cocoa grower Christopher Shadrach says, from Ose-Eke, one of the villages hacked out of the reserve, each one home to hundreds of people.
But to the elephants, the crops are tasty treats, which angers forest farmers.
Packed their trunks
Researchers had feared only a handful of elephants were left. Then, in April 2018, the elephants burst out of the jungle.
Drivers slammed on their brakes as herds stampeded across a four-lane highway, with desperate mother elephants trying to smash central barriers for babies to cross, rangers said.
“They were looking for a new home,” Olabode explains, suggesting quarry blasts could have been the final straw.
Many were chased back, although some found a happy hideout even closer to the city.
Olabode now believes there could be a hundred elephants in Omo — but their remarkable survival is under threat like never before as their forest home is in danger.
Africa Nature Investors (ANI), a Nigerian conservation foundation, plans to develop eco-tourism to protect the forest.
“It will provide alternative employment,” says Filip Van Trier, a Belgian businessman brought up in Nigeria, outlining funding proposals he is heading for ANI, including tripling ranger numbers.
“But first we have to stop the logging.”
‘Forests are critical’
At dawn in Omo, monkey chatter echoes across misty treetops.
Then there is the echo of a gunshot, signalling that a hunter is in the forest. Soon after, the whine of chainsaws begins.
Both poachers and ivory dealers risk five years in prison — if laws were enforced.
In 2015, the environment ministry drew up an action plan to protect elephants, vowing to crack down on a “large domestic ivory market.”
Yet in Lagos, in the Jakande craft market in middle-class Lekki, one carver shows off a commission he is making for a “big businessman” — a miniature AK-47 in ivory, the weapon of choice for poachers.
For city businesses, wildlife may not be their first concern, but preserving the jungle and keeping elephants safe is an issue for flood-hit Lagos.
“The forests are critical,” says Shakirudeen Odunuga, of the University of Lagos, who studies how forests stop storm waters surging into low-lying suburbs built on reclaimed swampland.
“We are already experiencing serious flooding.”
The forests, the lungs of Lagos, also bring life-saving rain.
“Without them, the heat would be unbearable,” Odunuga adds.
In Omo, Olabode and his tiny team trek each day through the forests, trying to stop its destruction.
“If we let the forest go, people will say, ‘we should have protected the elephants’,” he says. “But by then, it will be too late.”
Cameroon’s Minister of Forestry and and Wildlife said that Ivory dealers in the north of Cameroon have slaughtered nearly 300 elephants in a bid to secure thier tusks since mid-January, a claim that was backed up by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) after an armed gang of Sudanese poachers had killed the free-roaming elephants in the Bouba Ndjida National Park, on Cameroon’s border with Chad.
Park officials say many orphaned elephant calves have been spotted, and concerns are high that the babies may soon die of hunger and thirst.
One park official, Bouba Jadi, told CNN the deaths are worsening the situation for Cameroon’s already threatened elephant populations. According to official estimates, there are between 1,000 and 5,000 elephants in Cameroon.
Officials saw at least 100 elephant carcasses. More carcasses are expected to be found in unexplored regions of the national park. A massive crackdown on poachers has been launched, according to officials in the west Central African nation.
Reports show that that the killing of elephants has been on but its been on the high since January and cannotbe compared to those of the preceding years.
She added that the ivory is smuggled out of West and Central Africa for markets in Asia and Europe, and money from ivory sales funds arms purchases for use in regional conflicts, particularly ongoing unrest in Sudan and in the Central African Republic.
Cameroon shares a porous border with Chad. Armed insurgents from Sudan and the Central African Republic seeking elephants frequently travel through Chad.
Observers in Cameroon have been blaming the raids on poorly trained and ill-equipped park guards, who are pitted against professional gangs of poachers.