Malaysian authorities will offer a US$16,000 reward for information on 14 rare Borneo pygmy elephants found dead last month if it is confirmed they were poisoned, officials said on Wednesday.
Masidi Manjun, the tourism, culture and environment minister for the state of Sabah on vast Borneo island, said authorities hoped the reward would help them get new leads.
"There is a reward of 50,000 ringgit [HK$125,000] for information leading to the arrest, prosecution and conviction of the alleged culprits if the chemist report confirms that death was due to intentional poisoning," he said.
He added in a text message that the report is due to be completed tomorrow, about a fortnight after the first group of eight elephants were found dead near an oil palm plantation.
More bodies were later found decomposing in the Gunung Rara forest reserve, and officials are trying to save a three-month-old calf, poignantly photographed nuzzling its dead mother and now staying in a wildlife park.
Officials believe the elephants - an endangered species - may have been poisoned, possibly by chemicals planted by workers at nearby plantations to deter them from eating the palm fruit.
Poisoning is suspected owing to severe ulceration and bleeding in the animals' digestive tracts.
Masidi has vowed to push for severe punishment including a stiff jail sentence for anyone found to have maliciously poisoned the animals.
WWF-Malaysia, in a statement, blamed the deaths on rampant felling of forests by planters, forcing elephants to find alternative food and space that put them in conflict with humans.
The group says about 1,200 Borneo pygmy elephants, which are smaller and have more rounded features than full-sized Asian elephants, are estimated to be left in the wild.
Sabah once teemed with wildlife but it has been squeezed into ever smaller areas by the expansion of logging and agriculture.