Poison fear in rare elephant deaths

Ten endangered Borneo pygmy elephants have been found dead in a Malaysian forest under mysterious circumstances, and wildlife officials said they were probably poisoned.

The carcasses of the baby-faced elephants were found near each other in the Gunung Rara Forest Reserve over the past three weeks, said Laurentius Ambu, director of the wildlife department in Malaysia's Sabah state on Borneo island.

In one case, officers rescued a three-month-old calf which was trying to wake its dead mother.

The cause of death appeared to be poisoning, but officials have not determined whether it was intentional, said Sabah environmental minister Masidi Manjun. Though some elephants have been killed for their tusks on Sabah in past years, there was no sign that these animals had been poached.

"This is a very sad day for conservation and Sabah. The death of these majestic and severely endangered Bornean elephants is a great loss to the state," Mr Masidi said in a statement.

"If indeed these poor elephants were maliciously poisoned, I would personally make sure that the culprits would be brought to justice and pay for their crime."

The WWF wildlife group estimates there are fewer than 1,500 Borneo pygmy elephants. They live mainly in Sabah and grow to about 8ft tall, shorter than mainland Asian elephants. Known for their babyish faces, large ears and long tails, pygmy elephants were found to be a distinct subspecies in 2003, after DNA testing.

The elephants found dead this month were believed to be from the same family group and ranged in age from 4 to 20 years, said Sen Nathan, the wildlife department's senior veterinarian. Seven were female and three were male, he said.

Post-mortem examinations showed that they had suffered severe haemorrhages and ulcers in their gastrointestinal tracts. None had gunshot injuries.

"We highly suspect that it might be some form of acute poisoning from something that they had eaten, but we are still waiting for the laboratory results," Mr Nathan said.