Fat of the Land

How trans fats endanger wild elephants in Borneo

collage including elephant and pop art
Illustration by Sam Friedman

I am in need of a snack — and it seems I’m not alone. Midway through the afternoon, my blood sugar level sags to such an extent that only highly refined carbohydrates and fats will do. I push a coin through the slot, peel open the wrapper, and bite down. The soft chocolate melts on my tongue as a golden thread of caramel comes to rest upon my chin. In a few short, satisfying minutes, all will be right with the world. Then, and only then, will I return to productive life.

Hooray for the Snickers bar and the licorice twist, three cheers for Chips Ahoy! These days, those of us who partake in the occasional vending machine repast have reason to celebrate. In this age of trans fat awareness, the makers of processed foods have been reducing or eliminating that artery-clogging evil, giving us one more reason to indulge. North America’s confectioners are achieving this feat with a simple switch to palm oil — a non-genetically modified food that grows under a tropical sun. Can we at last snack in peace?

Online Only: A photo gallery of Borneo’s rainforest and pygmy elephants.On December 12, 2005, Canada became the first country to require food processors to label for the presence of trans fats in their products. Twenty days later, the US Food and Drug Administration followed suit. Trans fats, found in vegetable shortening, margarine, crackers, candies, cookies, fried foods, baked goods, and other processed foods made with partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, raise low-density lipoprotein (ldl or “bad”) cholesterol, increasing the risk of coronary heart disease. But thanks to the new labelling regulations, consumers can now make “healthy choices.” Processed food manufacturers in Canada, meanwhile, are scrambling to replace partially hydrogenated vegetable oil with palm oil, further spurred by the federal government’s announcement in June 2007 that it would begin enforcing strict limits on trans fats within two years unless industry voluntarily complied. Problem solved, it would seem — unless you have Internet access.

According to the Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest, palm oil, although less harmful than oils containing trans fats, still promotes heart disease. It’s also unhealthy for wildlife. Over 80 percent of the world’s palm oil is produced in former tropical rainforests on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra, the only habitat of wild orangutans, Sumatran rhinoceroses, pygmy elephants, and an ark’s worth of endangered and endemic species. Between 1985 and 1997, these islands lost 60 percent of their rainforest, contributing to what the ordinarily staid World Bank refers to as “a species extinction spasm of planetary proportions.” Demand for palm oil is forecast to double by 2020, requiring about 3,000 square kilometres of new land every year — in part to support our addiction to junk food.

I never used to waste time reading labels. Life was much simpler before. Part of me — the large, lazy part — simply doesn’t want to know, especially when I’m looking for a quick sugar fix. It’s not like I’m smoking in a kindergarten or swilling martinis behind the wheel of an suv. It is, after all, only a chocolate bar. Borneo? Pygmy elephants? With cheap fuel consumed and coursing through my veins, a sweet sense of power washes over me.

A rifle is shouldered; a silent shot is fired through dense tropical air. The wrinkled rump of an elephant twitches as if to shrug off a stinging wasp. A second dart lands in close proximity, and the target — the matriarch of her clan — emits a low-frequency rumble. This distress call registers with her young male calf and her four fully grown sisters grazing nearby. The rifle is loaded and fired a third, fourth, and fifth time as her siblings flee the scene. The calf, however, nestles into his mother’s breast, awaiting a reassuring caress that fails to come. When her trunk finally goes limp, he cries out in panic. A mild dose is prepared for him and fired into his hip, sending him on a tear through the jungle. That’s when we close in.

I prefer the Latin classification, Elephas maximus borneensis. The common name, Borneo pygmy elephant, conjures a creature so petite it could curl up on the end of the couch. Not so. Although pygmy elephants are slightly smaller than mainland Asian elephants, they are still formidable beasts, reaching heights of 2.5 metres and weighing up to 2.5 tonnes. They have rounder faces, bigger ears, and longer tails than their mainland cousins, and are believed to be less aggressive. Fewer than 1,500 survive in the wild. We know little else about them.

Found only on the island of Borneo, mostly here in the Malaysian state of Sabah, pygmy elephants have long been unprotected because they were believed to be the remnants of a domesticated herd abandoned by the Sultan of Sulu in the seventeenth century. As feral animals, they were not considered a conservation priority. Then, in 2003, dna analysis conducted by the World Wildlife Fund (wwf) and Columbia University determined that they are a distinct subspecies of mainland Asian elephant — one that set out on its own evolutionary path some 300,000 years ago. Borneo’s pygmy elephants are now recognized as endangered.

Morning in Sabah’s Danum Valley Conservation Area begins with an overture of crickets followed by an avian reveille. The hoots of gibbons proclaiming their territory cut through the rising mist. From the bearded pig browsing the forest floor to the hornbill alighting twenty-five storeys above, in the crown of a tualang tree, the dense, multi-layered jungle builds life upon life into one of the world’s most luxuriant displays. The conservation area includes 438 square kilometres of protected forest, surrounded by a 10,000-square-kilometre buffer zone where “natural forest management” (which includes controlled logging) is permitted. Taken together, they constitute the largest remaining elephant habitat in Asia — an island of biodiversity in a rising palm oil sea.

When one thinks of oil-producing regions, Borneo does not immediately spring to mind. The world’s third-largest island is divided among three nations: Malaysia, Indonesia, and the tiny sultanate of Brunei, which has become rich on old oil money. It is Malaysia, however, that leads the new and emerging oil economy. The hour-long drive from the city of Lahad Datu to the jungle is a monotony of oil palm plantations, and trucks laden with ripe palm fruit, the colour of corn and rubies.

Dr. A. Christy Williams, a thirty-eight-year-old Indian zoologist, carries himself with the confidence of a man fully engaged in his vocation. One of the world’s foremost authorities on Asian elephants, Williams leads the team of a dozen researchers crouching in the bush. He carefully approaches the still-standing mother elephant and gently speaks into her ear. Receiving no discernible response, he peeks around her side and into an unseeing eye. He nods, and the crew moves in to hobble her hind legs.

The anaesthetized elephant is around forty years old. She stands well over two metres tall and weighs more than two tonnes. A tape measure is tossed over her back and around her considerable girth as long poles are gently placed against her temples and wedged into the ground to keep her from turning her head or keeling over.

Dr. Symphorosa (Rosa) Sipangkui, a veterinarian with the Sabah Wildlife Department in Kuala Lumpur, has been specially flown in to sedate the subject. The smallest member of the team, she delicately removes the darts from the clay-coloured skin, daubs the wounds with peroxide, and administers injections of penicillin. The rest of the team goes to work monitoring vital signs and preparing a tracking collar. Everything is done with the swift precision of a Formula 1 pit crew. I walk up and stroke the elephant’s side, tough skin spiked with rigid black hair.

This satellite tracking project, the largest ever undertaken with elephants in Asia, was launched in 2005. Since then, ten other individuals have been collared and tracked, providing the first raw data about how pygmy elephants use their habitats. Beyond question, Williams says, the biggest threat researchers are seeing to the continued existence of pygmy elephants is the conversion of their habitat to industrial agriculture — specifically oil palm plantations that, in many parts of Borneo, stretch beyond the horizon.

“When people are flying over the jungle at 40,000 feet,” Williams says, “they need to be aware that the package of coffee creamer they’re opening is directly linked to the survival of such species as pygmy elephants, tigers, and orangutans. What they buy and consume is actually driving deforestation in a country far away — because that coffee creamer contains palm oil.”

Not long ago, palm oil appeared to be a dietary and ecological wonder. Native to West Africa, the commercial variety of oil palm (Elaeis guineensis) yields up to ten times more oil than other major oil crops. A perennial plant, it fruits throughout the year and has a productive lifespan of twenty-five years. Palm oil seems tailor made for industrial food processing and baking, because, like butter, it is semi-solid at room temperature. It also increases the shelf life of packaged foods without requiring trans fat–producing hydrogenation.

Palm oil has long been a staple of Asian pantries, and European nations have rapidly adopted its use (along with palm kernel oil) in the manufacture of an astonishing array of processed foods, soaps, shampoos, cosmetics, and pharmaceuticals, in addition to biodiesel. Until recently, North American producers preferred domestically grown soy, corn, and canola oils. All that changed with the new labelling requirements. Suddenly, the world’s largest economy developed a taste for palm oil.

Oil palms have been cultivated in Borneo since the nineteenth century, but it was only after the collapse of the rubber and logging industries in the 1990s that the crop gained real traction. Rising unemployment and continued immigration of workers, particularly from Indonesia, was creating political problems. The growing demand for palm oil was seen as an economic salvation.

Grown sustainably, palm oil could be part of a global ecological solution. Grown as a monoculture, however, palm plantations are essentially biological deserts, suitable for only a tiny fraction of Borneo’s astounding biodiversity. In Malaysia, fully 62 percent of cultivated land is covered in oil palm plantations. Although industry and conservation organizations have been talking for years about establishing standards and a certification regime, the wwf reports that there are still no certified organic or sustainable producers in all of Southeast Asia.

The industry also destroys habitat by fragmenting the Bornean rainforest. Elephants and other large animals require unhindered access to large areas of forest to locate food and water. The plantations, as large as 250 square kilometres, block migration patterns and isolate populations from one another. If the behaviour of mainland Asian elephants is any indication, female pygmy elephants live in matriarchal groups, usually of related sisters and their offspring. Adolescent males tend to travel in bachelor packs, while older males prefer to go it alone. In Borneo, when young male elephants are ready to establish territories of their own, they do so in a shrinking wilderness.

We’d found our family group of pygmy elephants stripping fronds from native palms with dexterous trunks, raising them up and over their heads to swat the nuisance of flies from their backs. The team quickly selected the matriarch. Before the tranquilizer was fired, we watched as the cow allowed her young calf plenty of room to explore. When he came cantering back for reassurance, she was generous with her touch.

On a small oil palm plantation seventy-five kilometres to the north, assistant manager Tuan Ali (not his real name) proclaims his company’s achievements while jabbing a tiny calculator. Ali has dark, coffee-coloured skin and the thick, meaty fingers of a man unafraid of physical labour. Where others in his position might be reluctant to speak to nosy foreigners, he sees his company as one of the industry’s good guys.

Ali’s plantation covers 1,620 hectares of former jungle and yields 500 tonnes of oil per month. The company plans to expand to 8,250 hectares. As on most other plantations in Sabah, virtually all of Ali’s 100 labourers come from neighbouring Indonesia. They work under temporary status; military checkpoints are set up at highway intersections to nab illegal immigrants, who come from as far away as the Philippines. “Local people don’t like to work the plantation,” Ali says. “I don’t know why. Maybe the income is not so good, or they don’t like a hardship situation.” Most of the managers, he claims, are local.

For as little as ten ringgits ($3) per day, Ali’s employees clear land, plant stock, prune mature trees, apply fertilizer and herbicide (including toxic paraquat dichloride), and harvest palm fruit, which grows in heavy clusters. On mature trees, the fruit is shorn off with a thin saw affixed to a long pole, then loaded onto trucks and sent to a depot or a mill. The fruit must be processed within forty-eight hours to yield the highest fat content. Difficult and dangerous, work on the plantation often involves crossing paths with black spitting cobras, which are attracted to the rats that favour this man-made environment. The snakes have the terrifying habit of ejecting venom into the eyes of intruders.

The wwf reports that displaced elephants are showing up on plantations and in villages, where they trample houses and gardens, injuring and occasionally killing people in their search for their daily requirement of about 150 kilograms of grasses, twigs, bark, fruit, and flowers. When these are scarce, they will turn to any available food source, including such agricultural crops as sugar cane, bananas, and oil palms. To defend their property (and sometimes themselves), villagers and plantation workers have been known to take matters into their own hands — often with tragic consequences for the elephants.

More often, elephants are the unintended targets of snares. In one study area alone (Sabah’s Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary), the wwf reports that an estimated 20 percent of resident elephants have sustained “gruesome” injuries from illegal traps set by plantation workers to catch smaller game to supplement their diets.

At the moment, Ali doesn’t have problems with elephants here, but he has in the past. Back in 2003, on his previous plantation, a herd of 120 displaced elephants arrived and stayed for three months. He called the government wildlife department but was told there was nothing they could do. The elephants must be left alone, they said. His solution was an electric fence. Being clever creatures, however, the elephants simply pushed trees over the weak solar-powered wires, coming and going as they pleased. “So I switched to a [diesel-powered] generator,” Ali says. “I put live current in the wire. When the elephant touched it, he got an electric shock and died.” In all, five were electrocuted. After that, he says, the elephants got the message, and the problem went away.

Down the road from Ali’s operation stands a much larger plantation with its own mill, which churns out up to 800 tonnes of oil each day. Because palm fruit must be processed so quickly, there is roughly one mill for every forty to fifty square kilometres of Bornean palm plantation — hundreds in all. Palm plantations with on-site mills are often villages unto themselves, with housing, medical facilities, schools, and even soccer fields for workers and their families. Many are surrounded by electric fences and have guards posted at their gates. Often there is an impressive residence for the manager that, in comparison with the surrounding accommodation, resembles a manor house from the antebellum American South. Although the majority of plantations are owned by large, publicly traded corporations, approximately 20 percent are owned by “small holders” — individual farmers who sell their crops to corporations.

Journalists researching the issue have been known to gain access to palm mills by posing as foreign investors. Despite my declaration that I am a writer interested in the fate of Borneo’s wildlife, and despite the long, ponderous pause of the man in charge, I am granted a guided hard-hat tour.

A fresh-faced Malaysian from junior management drew the short straw. We shuffle over stairs and pavement slick with oil, past a metal pit where trucks dump heavy clusters of vibrant palm fruit into waiting rail carts. The loads travel fifty metres, directly into a grey, hangar-sized factory of furnaces, conveyors, dryers, and vats. There, the bunches are steamed, the fruit separated from the husks, the flesh separated from the kernel, and the oil rendered down. It smells as if all the world’s deep fat fryers have drained into this one bubbling cauldron. Spent kernels and husks are collected and dried outside in the sun, then used to fuel the burners — not only for cooking the next batch of fruit, but to generate electricity for the mill and surrounding plantations. Efforts have been made, I’m told, to extract the highest value from the raw material. The oil is transported via tanker truck to Lahad Datu for further refining into oil suitable for use in food, medicine, cosmetics, or fuel. From there, it is shipped to manufacturers abroad, where it is pumped into diesel generators, lathered into scalps, rubbed onto skin, and consumed in bars of chocolate.

At the end of my tour, I am told that the effluent of crushed shells and fat residues from the manufacturing process is flushed into holding ponds, where excess oil settles out, rendering the waste water “safe.” When I ask if this water is then used to irrigate the oil palms, I am met with the kind of patient head shake reserved for children and fools.

“Oh, no. We don’t use that on the plantation.”

Why not?

“Because it still has oils in it, and it wouldn’t be good for the trees.”

Instead, he says, the waste is released into a stream on the flood plain of the Kinabatangan River, a habitat that supports the indigenous Orang Sungai (“river people” in the Malay language), wild orangutans (“forest people”), and the dwindling population of pygmy elephants.

Still sound asleep in the jungle’s dappled light, our elephant stares into the middle distance. A researcher spreads saline gel on her eyes, the size of billiard balls, working it over the lens with his finger. The $4,000 collar — an altered gps unit designed to track shipping containers — is handed to Williams, who makes adjustments. When the ten-kilogram device is finally bolted in place, the team removes the chains and supporting sticks, then stands back to inspect the result.

Stephen Hogg, a photographer and videographer from the wwf, pans back and zooms in with his video camera, pausing to direct the shot while a reporter from Kota Kinabalu, Sabah’s state capital, snaps stills next to Barry Calhoun, a Vancouver-based photographer. They jockey for position in front of the dozing beast. When someone returns with news that the calf has been found sleeping soundly nearby, Williams jogs down the slope to investigate.

I walk back to the stern, where Sipangkui observes her patient. Any moment now, we will retreat and wait for the elephant to wake and find her calf. Once reunited, the family will flee for deeper jungle, beaming back data on habitat use that will allow for better forest management strategies. This is the plan, at least, one that has served well for the ten elephants previously collared. Unfortunately, the plan is interrupted when the elephant suddenly raises her head.

She awakens neither bewildered nor drowsy. There is no stretch or yawn. She comes to all at once and — unable to find her calf — charges the first person she sees. In this elemental moment, it is truly every man for himself, starting with Calhoun.

Burdened with his camera, Calhoun runs down the slope as the elephant gives chase. She trumpets, swings her trunk, and gallops through the trees and brush. Everyone downslope has run for cover, save for two elephant trackers standing on an enormous fallen tree. One holds an air rifle aloft. He fires a loud warning blast, but the photographer continues to lose ground. A second blast issues from the gun, but still the elephant advances. Just before Calhoun reaches the fallen log, the man fires off a third round. This one has the desired effect. The elephant comes to an abrupt halt, then turns and charges back up the slope.

Sipangkui, standing at my side, lets out an unambiguous scream. We both turn to run — she around the trunk of the nearest tree, me down the back side of the slope. The elephant chooses me.

No biopic begins to play; no sentimental thoughts or long-held regrets come to mind. The right and left hemispheres, the deep brain stem, all focus on one clear choice: escape or die.

I try to jog two or three times a week. I like to think of myself as reasonably fit. But now I run as never before. My whole body moves away — arms, legs, chest, and chin straining to swim through the humid air, to run, to fly up and away past grabbing vines and trees. But then I fall hard on my face, planting my camera in the mud. As I spring to my feet, I see that the elephant is closing in. I make some panicked headway, then trip again. I can hear and feel her gaining. I grant myself the quickest of shoulder checks and see the most fantastical thing: she, too, has tripped and is turning over onto her shoulder — the rotund belly, the blunt feet going up and over in the air. I will be crushed by a rolling elephant.

Another fallen tree blocks the end of the ravine. This gorgeous, mammoth log is nearly as wide as I am tall. Beneath it shines a wedge of sunlight. I can no longer breathe. I will myself toward the narrowing gap and dive into the hole, through the mud, and back up the other side. The elephant, now on her feet, comes to a stop on the other side. This gives me a moment to flee. As I sprint down the slope, I hear a second scream.

I run until I know I am alone. Eventually, I swing back around and find Calhoun and the rifleman crouched behind the enormous log. I catch my breath and ask what happened to Sipangkui. Now that I am safe, I am convinced she has been killed. Together, we march up the slope to see what has happened. And there, where it all began, stands Sipangkui ministering to someone on the ground.

After my escape, the elephant had returned and gone after Hogg, head-butting him in the chest and laying him out flat. When she bore down on him a second time, he screamed at her, raised a leg, and booted her in the neck. That was enough to send her trumpeting away.

We help him to his feet, but his pain is disabling. Progress toward the truck is slow. We make it only a few hundred metres before the enraged elephant returns. Before we have time to devise a plan, the elephant inexplicably breaks off her pursuit and charges away in another direction.

Half an hour later, safely back at the trucks, the group reassembles and takes stock. Calhoun and Sipangkui have escaped unscathed, but Hogg requires a hospital trip for five broken ribs, three displaced vertebrae, and a severely fractured tailbone. The cow and calf, we learn, have found each other in the forest. Given their species’ reputation for memory, they will likely avoid all future signs of humanity.

Williams, who has missed all the action, wonders aloud what the fuss is about. The elephants are no worse for wear, and none of us has been killed or seriously injured. When working with wild animals, anything can happen. To provide some perspective, he tells us that in India an elephant can kill ten people before it will be relocated or shot. Today’s little excitement, he says, was nothing.

In an air-conditioned office in downtown Kota Kinabalu, Darrel Webber leans back in his chair. The wwf-Malaysia project manager has just returned from several days in the field and hasn’t had time to shower. Before joining the wwf, he worked for multinationals in the oil and gas industry, as well as for Pepsi, so he knows how to speak the language of commerce. Sustainable development, he says, should be “win-win.” He bristles at the idea that Malaysians are standing idly by as their forest, orangutans, rhinos, and elephants disappear.

Crossing Sabah by air and road, however, leaves little doubt about what drives the local economy. Nearly half of the state’s gdp is based on palm oil. But Webber doesn’t vilify the oil palm tree. Its produce, he says, can be both a solid foundation for the economy and ecologically sound. The problem is the headlong rush to clear forests with high conservation value to make room for monoculture. “Even though palm oil is in great demand, consumers do not want this to be the cause of more environmental damage,” he says. “Pressure has brought industry to the table. The ngos, the demand from global communities . . . something had to be done.”

That something was the decision to serve a new market, created when a group of consumers and retailers in Europe (particularly Great Britain) began to demand that the palm oil they purchased come from an independently certified sustainable source. At first, the notion seemed to me almost laughably naive. However, from Borneo’s oil palm plantations and indigenous communities to the offices of the wwf, I heard a consensus: consumer pressure had indeed forced stakeholders to find a way to protect habitat while supplying the growing market.

Webber represents the wwf as a member of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (rspo), the vehicle for meeting the new demand. Through the rspo, the palm oil industry, retailers, banks, and conservation organizations have established a certification standard for sustainable palm oil. They have promised that once they find a body to enforce the standard, they will provide manufacturers, retailers, and consumers with clear labels stating that the palm oil was produced with some measure of environmental protection and social responsibility.

The rspo expects certified palm oil to be on the market in the first quarter of 2008. Whether or not it can deliver on time is open to question. Declarations of good intentions from government and industry, followed by endless discussion and debate, are a sad and familiar refrain. In Canada, for example, logging in the last remaining habitat of the spotted owl continues unabated as the British Columbia government conducts studies and talks.

“I don’t think this will be greenwashing,” Webber says. “Apart from [Forest Stewardship Council certified] timber, it’s the most credible thing out there for any commodity on earth. No other commodity has this kind of representation in a multi-stakeholder process — social ngos, multinational trade organizations. They struck a deal they can all live with. It doesn’t cover 100 percent of the issues, but 80 to 90 percent.” He confesses, however, that only about a third of global production is represented in the rspo. So when certification is in place, he says, consumers should only buy sustainable palm oil with the label attached. “Basically, at the end of the day you will know who are the good boys and who are the bad boys in the industry. Consumers will make the distinction.”

It’s snack time again, and the cravings haven’t changed. Since our appetite for cookies, crackers, cakes, and ice cream shows no sign of abating, cheap alternatives to trans fat–laden hydrogenated vegetable oil will find a large and ready market. By 2012, palm oil is forecast to become the world’s most produced and internationally traded edible oil. Where does this increasing demand leave Borneo’s beleaguered wildlife?

In 2007, conservationists received some overdue good news. International pressure, coupled with hard scientific data gathered by the wwf, helped nudge the island’s three national governments to create the joint Heart of Borneo initiative, which promises to protect roughly 220,000 square kilometres of habitat — nearly a third of the island’s land mass. The declaration helped to kill a plan, supported by Chinese investors, to replace 18,000 square kilometres of rainforest with the world’s largest oil palm plantation. It was an important reprieve for Borneo’s orangutans, rhinoceroses, and pygmy elephants — including Suria and her calf.

Suria, the Malay word for “sunshine,” was the name chosen in a contest for the eleventh elephant collared in the satellite tracking program. Since chasing two photographers, a veterinarian, and me, little Miss Sunshine has been doing a lot of travelling, providing plenty of proof that she is either extremely lucky or very wise. In her endless search for food, she mostly stays in rare protected jungle and avoids the great expanses of oil palm fields that disrupt many of her relatives’ lives. Her legacy, aside from her offspring, will be the knowledge she leaves behind about how she moved through her remarkable environment.

Brian Payton
Brian Payton is the award-winning author of Shadow of the Bear, The Ice Passage, and the national bestselling novel The Wind Is Not a River. His nonfiction has appeared in the New York Times, the Boston Globe, and Canadian Geographic. He lives on Vancouver Island, BC.