Changing Planet

Work Hazards: Bornean Pygmy Elephants

On the drive into Danum Valley Field Center in Sabah, Malaysia, I caught a glimpse of one of the most iconic species in the Bornean rainforest – the Bornean Pygmy Elephant. They had been walking on the road, but just as our van came around the bend they retreated by the forest. As we passed by, I saw the backside of a baby elephant disappear behind the vegetation. Unfortunately I didn’t get my camera out fast enough to get any photos, but just imagine an elephant’s butt…but smaller. Bornean Pygmy Elephants are the smallest elephant species in the world, but don’t let the word “pygmy” fool you – they can reach almost 10 feet tall and weigh more than a Range Rover.

About a week later, while hiking out to our research site we heard the elephants trumpeting nearby, and as we continued on we started to see a few other signs.

I resisted the urge to stick my finger in to test its freshness because: (1) the air temperature and humidity is keeping the poo nice and balmy anyway, (2) my fingers probably aren’t even all that that temperature-sensitive, and (3) then I would have poop on my finger.

Whenever I am out in the forest I am accompanied by a couple of research assistants who help me navigate through the forest and set up the cameras. One of them raced ahead on the trail to find that the elephants were blocking the trail ahead of us, which meant we would have to head back to the field station for the day. As we turned back to the field station we met up with another group of researchers who had been surrounded by the elephants. There were a couple of babies in the herd, which made things even more precarious, but everyone made it out without incident.

The next day we made our way back out to try again. We saw the same footprints and dung piles from the day before, but no new signs. On the way out at the end of the day we saw that one of the camera traps I had set up on the ground had clearly been inspected (but thankfully not destroyed) by an elephant, so I may have some elephant photos coming my way soon.

Signs of Borneo Pygmy Elephants on the trail at Danum Valley Field Center.
Signs of Borneo Pygmy Elephants on the trail at Danum Valley Field Center.

I should mention that out of all the researchers working out in the forest this week I probably fared the best. One scientist had been chased out of his research plots just about every day since the elephants arrived in the area, and another had some of his equipment trampled into disrepair. After several months working in the forests here I’ve gotten used to sweating through all my clothes the moment we enter the forest, made peace with my complete lack of agility on the slippery trails, and even grown accustomed to picking leeches off me all day; but this was one work hazard I hadn’t anticipated.

Kevin McLean is an ecologist studying wildlife in tropical forest canopies using motion-sensitive cameras (camera traps). As a Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellow he will travel to Malaysian Borneo and the Ecuadorian Amazon to survey canopy wildlife in two of the most biodiverse areas of the world. As he collects his scientific data, he will use writing, photos, and videos to provide a view of some of the least-known species in the forest. His research and stories will be made available to the public through a museum exhibit that will highlight canopy wildlife and the conservation threats they face. Kevin studied Earth Systems at Stanford University and recently completed his PhD in Ecology and Biodiversity Conservation at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

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