ABOVE:  A family of elephants led by the large matriarch (on the left)  crossing a road in an industrial tree plantation of Falcataria moluccana  at Brumas near Tawau in E. Sabah.

All photographs by Shavez Cheema

In the last 50 years, hundreds of thousands of hectares of virgin  lowland dipterocarp forest have been converted to industrial tree plantations (as well as oil palm plantations)  in lowland Borneo.

Local dipterocarp timber trees are relatively fast growing and reach  maturity in around 40 years, however this is not fast enough for foresters, who are looking for even faster growth to achieve a higher return on investment.

After many failures, foresters  have found  two species of non-native trees which can reach commercial maturity in under 30 years. These are

(1) Eucalyptus pellita native to the tropical Cape York peninsula in Australia and

(2) Falcataria moluccana (Moluccan albizia) native to the Moluccas in E. Indonesia.

A typical industrial 10,000 ha tree plantation in Borneo is divided into 30 contiguous plots which are harvested on a 30 year rotation by clear felling. After planting replacement saplings, the plots are left to look after themselves for the next 30 years apart from occasional thinning.

Even fast growing  industrial trees take at least 3 years to close up the canopy, blocking sunlight reaching the forest floor. Therefore for the first  3 years after planting the understorey of these industrial forests are relatively sunny  and develop a rich flora of grasses and herbs which are greatly favored by elephants.  This means that at any one time c.10% of the tree plantation can provide a rich fodder for elephants.

Studies by zoologists working for WWF have found that these new growth plots in industrial tree plantations currently host the  highest density of elephants in Sabah, several times higher than virgin dipterocarp forest.

Borneo elephant young male 3N1A8150

Borneo elephant family 3N1A6885.jpg

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Elsewhere in Sabah, forest that hosts elephants is usually adjacent to oil palm estates where elephants are  persecuted for damaging young palms. In industrial tree plantations however  elephants are not persecuted (because they do no damage to the trees)  and as a result are less nervous and frightened by the presence of humans.