Borneo pygmy elephants depend for their survival on forests situated on flat, low lands and in river valleys, the study found. Unfortunately, this is also the type of terrain preferred for commercial plantations. Data gathered so far reveals there are probably not more than 1,000 pygmy elephants left in Sabah - previous estimates suggested that there were fewer than 1,500.
Over the past four decades, 40% of the forest cover of the Malaysian state of Sabah, on the north-east of Borneo - where most of pygmy elephants live - has been lost to logging, conversion for plantations and human settlement.
"The areas that these elephants need to survive are the same forests where the most intensive logging in Sabah has taken place, because flat lands and valleys incur the lowest costs when extracting timber," said Raymond Alfred, Head of WWF-Malaysia's Borneo Species Programme.
"However, the Malaysian government's commitment to retaining extensive forest habitat throughout central Sabah, under the 'Heart of Borneo' agreement, should ensure that the majority of the herds have a home in the long term," Alfred added.
This study, the largest yet attempted using satellite collars on Asian elephants, suggests that pygmy elephants prefer lowland forests because there is more food of better quality on fertile lowland soils. But the study also shows that elephants' movements are noticeably affected by human activities and forest disturbance.
And, one important area for the elephants, the Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary, may be too small and too fragmented to support a viable population in the long term, according to the report.
Five pygmy elephants were darted and fitted with collars two years ago by the Sabah Wildlife Department, with WWF assistance, after tracking the elephants on foot through the dense jungle was found too difficult over long periods.
The collars sent GPS locations to a WWF computer via satellite as often as once a day. This was the first long-term study of Borneo pygmy elephants.
"Satellite tracking is clearly one of the most effective ways of obtaining information on wild elephants in Sabah because they spend so much time inside the forest," said Mahedi Andau, Director of the Sabah Wildlife Department. "We now have a good idea of the home range, size and location of some individual elephant herds."
The information provided by the research might also help predict locations where elephants and farms may come into future conflict.
While pygmy elephants can live in logged and secondary forests, it is crucial that their remaining habitat is managed sustainably and not converted into plantations. Logging in elephant habitat should only take place if there is a long-term forest management plan in place, and oil palm plantations should be established on degraded, non-forested land devoid of elephants and orang-utans.