We’re equipped with satellite phones, handheld GPS receivers and state-of-the-art electronic elephant collars. But our expedition gets underway before dawn by setting off in our Land Cruisers in a decidedly low-tech pursuit of elephant dung on the road. The fresher, the better.
Fortunately for us, elephants produce copious amounts of dung. And they like to travel on logging roads in the forest when there isn’t any traffic, since roads are easier to walk on than the undergrowth in the jungle. So elephant dung is pretty easy to spot. After just 30 minutes of driving, we find what to the trained eye (not mine) is obviously very fresh dung.
“A mother and baby, four hours old,” says one of WWF’s expert trackers, Bert Joseph. His brother, William, another tracker, sets off on foot into the dense jungle after the elephants and we drive farther on, hoping to cut the elephants off at the next road, where Raymond, the AREAS manager in Borneo, figures they’re headed.
7 a.m. We check another area that’s a likely spot for elephants, but the dung here is days old. Another group of trackers check a different location.
12:30 p.m. We’ve done lots of driving and seen lots of old elephant signs, but nothing recent. We stop by a river to wait for William to come out of the forest. He’s lost the trail of the elephants he was searching for. But the second set of trackers has found a herd! At least five elephants are in the group and there appear to be more in the area.
The elephants appear agitated, though, as there has been a lot of conflict between them and workers at nearby palm oil plantations. The plantations supply the world’s demand for palm oil - used in everything from food to cosmetics - and elephants enjoy munching on the palm trees, bringing them into constant conflict with plantation managers trying to protect their crops.
Raymond calls the Sabah Wildlife Department veterinarian and the ranger tasked with darting the elephants for us. They will drive in that night and meet us in the morning.
5 p.m. After lunch and a rest, we find the herd again as it comes out to the road towards dusk It’s cooler at this time of day and the elephant emerge from the forest to eat plants near the side of the road. We watch from maybe 50 feet away for more than hour as the elephants, including two babies, cross back and forth on the road to eat.