Thanks to his unusual tusks, Sabre was one of the rarest elephants around. After he was found by wildlife authorities, then, the majestic animal was transported to a tranquil patch of forest and given a satellite collar so he could be monitored. But, unfortunately, it seemed that nothing could keep this exceptional elephant safe.
Sabre the Bornean pygmy elephant was first discovered in the summer of 2016. He was found in Sabah – a region in the Malaysian part of Borneo that is known for its diverse array of wildlife. And while there are thought to be at least 1,000 elephants in the area, there was something special about this one.
In particular, when the Sabah Wildlife Department located Sabre the team immediately noticed his unusual tusks. Rather than pointing outwards and up like most elephants, his were turned down. And his saber-toothed tiger-like appendages would help earn him his name.
Curiously, though, it’s not known why exactly Sabre’s tusks pointed in the opposite direction. Still, his appearance was noted to be similar to that of a Deinotherium. Those prehistoric elephants also had backwards tusks; the ancient pachyderms, however, had become extinct 2.5 million years ago.
“This is a rare find, but [every elephant is] unique on its own,” Dr. Sen Nathan, Sabah Wildlife Department assistant director, told New Straits Times in 2016. As Bornean pygmy elephants are also considered endangered by the IUCN, however, Sabre needed protection. And as a result, the decision was made to transport him from the palm oil plantation where he was found to a safe forest.
Sabre’s move was a wise one, as elephants in this area face many threats. The biggest problem these gentle giants face is the growing human population, which in turn has caused major habitat loss, food depletion and fragmentation. On top of this, ivory poachers often hunt the animals.
So in order to keep track of Sabre’s movements and ensure he was safe from harm, the elephant was fitted with a special satellite collar. The device enabled teams from the Sabah Wildlife Department and Cardiff University in the United Kingdom to monitor the elephant. And in the following months they kept a watchful eye on Sabre.
Then in November 2016 Sabre’s movements stopped. Yet despite the threats elephants in the region are under, the monitoring teams weren’t worried at first about this turn of events. Having worked with animals for so long, they have learned that male elephants often find ways of escaping their collars.
“I thought that the unit dropped, which happens often for males,” Benoit Goossens from the Danau Girang Field Centre explained to The Dodo in January 2017. “They find ways to get rid of the unit on the belt by rubbing on trees. And since it was in a protected forest reserve, and that [the Sabah Wildlife Rescue Unit] was busy with other rescues, I did not worry too much.”
Almost one month passed, then, during which no one gave Sabre’s whereabouts too much thought. But on December 26, 2016, a terrible discovery was made. Specifically, Sabah’s Wildlife Rescue Unit stumbled upon the body of a 40-year-old bull elephant in the Kawag Forest Reserve.
Apparently, the male had been murdered for his ivory tusks. And when Goossens heard about the body, it shocked him to the core. Even more ominously, the tragic remains had been discovered less than a mile from where Sabre’s collar had been last located.
A panicked Goossens then got the Wildlife Rescue Unit to search for any sign of Sabre. And, sure enough, they found him – but it wasn’t good news. “My team and the Wildlife Rescue Unit found Sabre’s remains with the collar next to it,” Goossens told The Dodo.
A statement released on the Danau Girang Field Centre Facebook page in January 2017 stated, “[We] are absolutely devastated. There are no words to express our sadness and anger. We hope that the departments in charge will do everything to catch the culprit and that those crimes will not go unpunished.”
All that was left of poor Sabre’s mutilated body, meanwhile, were his bones. This led experts to believe he’d been slain just one month after arriving in the forest that was supposed to be his sanctuary. And just as worryingly, this implied that poachers were operating in zones that conservationists had previously deemed safe.
It’s no surprise then, that the two murders shook the conservation world. “Any individual killed is a huge loss, especially a male like Sabre who was about 20 to 25 years old, at [his] prime age for mating,” Goossens said in his interview with The Dodo. “The other bull was older, around 40 years. Losing two mature males is a huge blow for the population.”
Indeed, fewer than 1,600 Bornean pygmy elephants are estimated to be left in the wild. If they are to survive into the future, then, poaching of their kind needs to be stamped out. And the small steps being made to keep elephants safe have been put into stark relief by the two Bornean pachyderms’ murders. As Goossens told the Daily Express in January 2017, “On the day China banned ivory trade, we get two of our precious elephants murdered for their ivory.”
“Our elephants are already threatened by habitat loss [and] development, such as the planned road/bridge in Sukau-Kinabatangan,” he added. “And if we add poaching for ivory, I don’t give many years for the species to become extinct.”
Of course, the brutal killings of Sabre and the other male sent shockwaves around the world. “I couldn’t express my sadness in words,” one user wrote on the Danau Girang Field Centre Facebook page. “I could only wish this news is just a bad dream and when I wake up tomorrow morning Sabre [will still be] alive and well.”
In addition, the Sabah Wildlife Department has offered a reward of 10,000 Malaysian ringgits ($2,000) for any information on Sabre’s murder. “The reward is for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the poachers,” Dr. Sen Nathan has said.
Hopefully, then, with all the press these awful murders have been given, Sabre’s poachers will be brought to justice. And given that they have exposed the brutal reality of the ivory trade, perhaps more people will condemn the savage practice. After all, tusks look much better on elephants’ faces – where they belong.