Sandakan, Malaysia — No one seems certain how the elephants came to Sabah, on Borneo's northern coast. According to tradition they were shipped here in fairly recent times by man. Certainly no trace of elephant has been found in fossils. One of Magellan's companions who visited Brunei in 1521 records seeing richly decorated elephants at the court of the sultan. Later historical research indicates they may have been sent from Thailand.
Unfortunately there is less doubt about the way they may be expected to disappear from the scene: As in most parts of the world, large mammals in Sabah are in head-on confrontation with human development.
Their habitat is being taken over for oil palm and cocoa plantations, and naturalists suggest that many will soon die out or have to be shot.
Estimates by the Sabah Forestry Department and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) place the elephant population here at around 1,000. Based on their own sightings , local people say they have become much rarer over the last 20 years.
''If you drove from the west coast to Sandakan in the '60s,'' said a forest ranger, ''you'd sometimes be held up by a herd of them on the road. You'd just have to wait till they decided to move. That doesn't happen anymore.''
The elephants may have simply retreated farther into the forest as the plantations spread out, but the crunch is definitely coming. The elephants' favorite habitat, lowland forest, is proving to be fine agricultural land and is being cleared fast. Elephants take up a lot of land - about 10 square kilometers each, and at least half, according to a WWF survey, live in land designated for agricultural development.
When forest is cleared, elephants that have withdrawn into the adjoining forest, return to raid the plantations. ''They keep coming back,'' said a forester, perhaps half remembering earlier struggles for the land here, ''After all, it was their land.''
A more logical explanation is that the elephants have developed a taste for oil palm shoots.
The Sabah Forestry Department tries to avoid killing the raiders. ''First of all we use thunderflashes to try to scare them away,'' says a forest ranger. ''But if that doesn't work after a while, we have to kill the leader.''
Between 1971 and 1980, forest rangers shot an average of 10 elephants a year in Sabah.
Elsewhere in Malaysia, game wardens are experimenting with electric fences around plantations.
Ivory poachers are no great danger, as only the older male elephants have tempting tusks, and the culling losses would normally be made up by new births. It is the loss of habitat that is the greatest threat, specialists say. The elephants are being forced into islands of forest surrounded by seas of plantation. The ''islands'' are often too small to sustain the elephants crowded onto it, or the elephants too few to allow for breeding. And as the plantations spread and the forest shrinks, elephant raids on the oil palms are likely to increase.
Many specialists feel that the elephant population will drop sharply in the coming decade. ''Most of them will probably have to be shot,'' concluded one expert. ''There seems no other solution.''
If all goes well, a group of around 200 elephants will remain in eastern Sabah, where the WWF has recommended that a conservation area be set up in the Silabukan area, some 60 miles southeast of Sandakan. If the government agrees to the proposal, the elephants will share the land, about 110,000 hectares in all, with the last breeding population of Sabah's most threatened animal, the Sumatran rhinoceros. Between 12 and 20 rhinos survive in Sabah today, 7 to 12 of them in Silabukan.
Unlike the elephants, the rhino cannot thrive in forests that have been logged - that is, where commercially valuable trees have been removed, along with the plants the rhino needs for food. And for the rhino, poachers are a far greater danger: the Chinese prize its horn for the medicinal and aphrodisiac properties attributed to it.
Poachers are thought to have killed one of two young rhinos reported to be in the Silabukan area by the WWF survey.
There are a number of animals in Sabah classified by the WWF as either endangered, vulnerable (to extinction), or very rare. Among them is the tembadau , a species of wild cattle. About 300 of these reportedly survive.
Here, as elsewhere, the greatest threats are logging, agricultural development, hunting, or a combination of these factors. The rhino, for example is endangered by logging and hunting. The elephant and tembadau, on the other hand, actually benefit from logging, which makes their food plants more accessible. And the tembadau, if tolerated by man, could probably do well on the weeds that grow in plantations. Its main enemy seems to be the hunter.
Third-world countries, not usually insensitive to threats to wildlife, are often annoyed by Western concern.
''Sure they're changing the environment completely here,'' said an individual from another third-world country now living in Sabah. ''Sure it's a shame. I think it's tragic. But whose development is it? The West has already modified its own environment. It did it during the Industrial Revolution, and I can't recall reading of too many expressions of concern then.''