An elder female matriarch Bornean elephant Elephas maximus borneensis feeding on recently  cut, fallen oil palm leaves  in the Permai palm oil plantation next to the Tabin Wildlife Reserve in Sabah. Most groups  of elephants in Borneo are family units led by the eldest female. Sexually active males usually live alone  and can be aggressive  if molested.

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Oil palm fruit bunches are harvested every two weeks. To access the base of the fruit bunch, leaf bases that are blocking access to the fruit bunches need to be pruned- so every two weeks in all oil palm plantation many healthy leaves are dumped on the plantation ground. On some estates the leaves are collected ans ground up for cattle feed. However on most estates they are left to rot. Elephants love to eat these cut leaves and  regularly do so at the Permai Plantation next to Tabin doing no harm to the mature oil palm trees.
05 Elephants Tabin oil palm IMG_5421.JPG
Only male Bornean Elephants have tusks  so it is obvious that 2 of the 3 elephants in this photo are male.Note that the larger male elephant also has  a leaking gland just behind his eye indicating a state of musth or sexual excitement. Most sexually active males are excluded  from the herd by the matriarch and either wander the forest alone or join small bachelor herds.
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As can be seen from this map Tabin Wildlife Reserve is completely surrounded by oil palm estates  which also block  the most  easy access to the Segama River, the only large river in the area. Elephants need to drink and like to bathe every day so access to  large amounts of clean water is essential for  healthy elephant populations.
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The oil palm estates at Tabin stretch from the forest to the sea.
07 Young oil palm IMG_5462.JPG
Oil Palms normally start fruiting at c. 7 years of age and  by c. 27 years old  are too tall to be harvested so they are removed and the land replanted. The area in the foreground  has been recently replanted with young oil palms surrounded  at this stage by large areas of grass. Elephants  eat both the grass and the young palms so this is ideal elephant habitat. A small herd of elephants can destroy hundreds of hectares of young palms in a few days. Can elephants and oil palms co-exist ?
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In areas where oil palm is planted next to forest in Sabah,  elephants are a serious pest of young palms They eat the growing bud thus killing the palm. A herd of elephants can destroy many hectares of young palms overnight. Once the oil palm reaches elephant height and starts fruiting at 7 years old, however, the palm is safe. When mature oil-palm fruit bunches are harvested  every two weeks the leaves surrounding the fruit  are cut and fall to the ground. Elephants eat these cut fronds and do no damage to the mature palm. Thus elephants and mature oil palms can co-exist successfully as long as young palms are protected with electric fencing. It should be possible to design the layout of an oil-palm estate so that elephants are allowed to wander in areas of mature palm, whilst areas of young palms are temporarily secured against elephants.
08 Oil palm fruit bunch IMG_5455.JPG
Elephants do not eat or destroy oil palm fruits. Elephants only eat the palm leaves  and are especially fond of the young growing tip known as ubud or palm heart. Eating the ubud however kills the palm whilst eating cut fallen leaves does no harm.