Found Baby Elephants Recovering in Malaysia


By Celine Fernandez, Wall Street Journal

Date Published

Two baby elephants found in the eastern tip of Malaysia – one of whom was heard crying near a crocodile-infested river – are recovering at a wildlife preserve as authorities scramble to find their moms.

Jimbo, found by plantation workers, is just two weeks to one-month old, authorities said, having determined his age by seeing that his navel was still moist. Meanwhile, Tun Tan is about one year old. Male elephants normally stay with their mothers until they are 8 to 14 years old.

“We need to find the mothers as soon as possible,”  said Dr. Sen Nathan, a deputy director at the Sabah Wildlife Department and manager of the wildlife rescue unit. Rangers are searching for their mothers.

“The longer we wait, the more difficult it will be for the mothers and the babies to bond because of too much human contact.”

“In a group [of elephants], there is not only the mum but also aunties and sisters  who look after baby elephants . So why were this babies abandoned?” said Dr. Sen.

Jimbo and Tun Tan are pygmy elephants. Known for their floppy ears, pygmies are endangered. Only 1,500 are left in the world, two-thirds of them in Sabah state.

Benoît Goossens, director of Malaysia’s Danau Girang Field Centre in the Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary, is at a loss for what happened to the baby elephants’ moms.

It is extremely rare for a mother elephant to abandon her offspring. He said if the mother had been killed, for example by poisoning, then the baby would normally be cared for by the extended female elephant family. A baby might be abandoned if it is sick and can’t keep up with the group. But Jimbo and Tun Tan appear to be healthy.

The mystery comes in the shadow of last year’s tragedy: 14 pygmy elephants were found poisoned to death in the Gunung Rara Forest Reserve in Sabah state. No one has been prosecuted for their deaths.

Elephants and humans have come into conflict as plantations and urban development have reduced wild lands. Sometimes elephants wander out of protected forests in Sabah, stomping on crops and frightening villagers.

In an effort to reduce tensions, Sabah plans to increase it protected forests from  1.35 million hectares to about 2.10 million hectares in the next 10 years.

Plantation workers helped Jimbo and Tun Tan.

Jimbo was found by plantation workers at Linbar 2 Estate, at the  boundary of the Segaliud Lokan Forest Reserve in the wee hours of Feb. 5, severely dehydrated and exhausted.

“Luckily we found the baby before the crocodiles could get to him,” said Romeo Pabilla, an assistant plantation manager at the Linbar 2 Estate.

“We informed the Wildlife Department.  …  We tried to feed him milk while waiting for the rescue workers.”

A rescue team immediately provided a dehydrated Jimbo with intravenous fluids.

Mr. Romeo said he and other workers heard elephants moving about the next night in the area. “They probably came to look for the baby.  They have not come since then,” he added.

Shortly thereafter on the same day, Tun Tan was seen loitering about at the Tun Tan estate in Sukau. A quick-thinking worker ran and got a tractor, knowing baby elephants often mistake the large vehicles for their moms.

Workers called wildlife authorities, offering Tun Tan bananas and water during his wait.

Jimbo and Tun Tan were transported slowly and separately to Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center, which cares for dozens of wildlife species. Periodic stops were made over the four-hour trip to check on the baby elephants’ health.

The two are bunking up together while the search continues for their moms. They have a shelter at night and an exercise area for the day. Jimbo has gained 10 kilograms, and now weighs 90 kilograms.  Tun Tan has put on eight kilograms, and now weighs 118 kilograms.

“The babies are happy,”  Dr. Sen said. “They are active and playing together. They are not out of the woods yet but they will make it .”