Chendra is the only Borneo elephant in North America, and it’s easy to spot her among the rest of the Oregon Zoo herd. Her subspecies is known for its gentle demeanor and “cute” appearance: small and furry, with a long tail, oversized ears and a baby face—like a cartoon elephant come to life. Only around 1,500 of Chendra’s kind remain on the planet, the vast majority of them in the Malaysian state of Sabah in northern Borneo.
Asian elephants are critically endangered throughout their native range, and in Borneo, the situation is especially urgent. Deforestation, largely driven by logging and palm oil production, has destroyed and fragmented much of their habitat, increasing human-wildlife conflict. When elephants get pushed out of plantations, calves can get separated from their herds.
Chendra was orphaned this way. In 1994, still just a young calf, she was found wandering near a plantation in Sabah—wounded, frightened and alone. Her family was gone, a shotgun blast had blinded her right eye, and her chances of survival were slim. Unable to locate her family or release her back into the wild, Malaysian wildlife officials eventually found her a home at the Oregon Zoo in Portland, Ore.
While the future of Borneo elephants is uncertain, there is much cause for hope. For nearly 15 years, the Zoo has supported the HUTAN-Kinabatangan Orangutan Conservation Programme and its work to reconnect the forest. Community-led reforestation efforts are creating wildlife corridors, providing safe passage of elephants and other species. What does success look like? In a forest stand that I helped replant just three years before—an area that was bare ground at the time—we found evidence that elephants had recently passed through. Animals moving through these wildlife corridors disperse seeds, helping the forest regenerate naturally, and increasing biodiversity.
Meanwhile, other conservation efforts are focused on the human side of the equation, creating “tolerance corridors” among the people of Sabah. Project Seratu Aatai led by Dr. Farina Othman, promotes peaceful coexistence between people and wildlife through community engagement, education, and public awareness. (Seratu Aatai means “living together” in the Orang Sungai language.)
Despite these initiatives, a number of Borneo’s elephants inevitably wind up in human care. Over the past 15 years, the Sabah Wildlife Department has rescued more than 20 baby elephants. Assuring the wellbeing of these orphans is another big concern, and an area where we, as zoo professionals are well-positioned to help. In addition to funding the salaries of full-time caregivers with the rescue unit, we have been sharing our training expertise—gained from more than 60 years of caring for elephants at the Oregon Zoo—with the team in Borneo.
Despite the trauma of her early years, Chendra has found a great home with the Oregon Zoo elephant family. And she has forged a partnership between Sabah and the Oregon Zoo that has lasted more than 20 years, inspiring us and others to become involved in long-term conservation efforts on the other side of the world.
Photos credit: © Oregon Zoo
Dr. Sharon Glaeser is a conservation scientist at the Oregon Zoo, focused on elephant wellbeing and wildlife conservation efforts in Borneo.
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