The elusive Borneo pygmy elephant


PROTECTION NEEDED: Time is running out for the unique Borneo pygmy elephant.

IT was in conversation with a former student of mine that my thoughts drifted towards this article. Dr Kate Evans has been working in Botswana, with her husband, in researching the behaviour and patterns of movement of African elephants for many years. She inaugurated the Elephants for Africa Trust Fund. I once had the great pleasure to teach Dr Evans about vegetation and wildlife on the African savannahs and much later in my life got very close to African elephants in their natural habitat in the Masai Mara Game Reserve in Western Kenya.

My fascination for the Borneo pygmy elephant (Elephas maximus borneensis) became a reality 11 and 12 years ago in leading two expeditions of UK students to Danum Valley and along the lower Kinabatangan River in eastern Sabah.

Whilst driving along a logging track, I observed fresh elephant dung and, as elusive as ever, there was not a single sighting of my friends. Clearly, as the dung was still steaming, the elephants had recently used the logging track in the early morning mists to cross from one section of the dipterocarp forest to another.

Dr Evans, in her research for her PhD, was one of the first pachydermists in the world to track elephants, in Botswana, with the use of the global positioning system (GPS) by attaching transmitting collars to male elephants.

For a year – 2005 to 2006 – five female Borneo pygmy elephants were tracked by satellite to come up with a plan for their protection in eastern Sabah. This was sponsored by the Sabah Wildlife Department, the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) – International, and the Asian Rhino and Elephant Action Strategy (Areas) WWF – Malaysia.

These elephants are usually located on the floodplain tributaries and middle catchment areas of the Kinabatangan River and in the Danum Valley. Often they migrate across the human border into East Kalimantan (Indonesia).

Smaller by some 600 centimetres to one metre than their other Asian counterparts, and less aggressive, they have rounded faces, larger ears and longer tails, which sometimes sweep the ground. They are a chubbier species of elephant.

As their forest habitat shrinks, despite the creation of elephant corridors, as plantations take over the land, they often confront humans over food needs to guzzle crops in particular, leading to the beating of gongs and even fireworks to scare them away.

Long thought to be feral remnants of a domesticated herd of Javan elephants donated to the Sultan of Sulu in the 17th century, owing to their non-aggressive behaviour and semi-tamed nature, this theory has now been disproved. Interestingly Javan elephants on Java are long extinct.

DNA analysis in a 2003 joint research project between Columbia State University (USA) and WWF established that our Bornean pygmy elephants are genetically different from other Asian elephants and became isolated from the Asian mainland population of elephants some 300,000 years ago. Thus the Borneo pygmy elephant is a subspecies endemic to areas of Borneo. This research was based on the analysis of elephant dung.

It is estimated that there are fewer than 1,500 pygmy elephants in Borneo. A dichotomy exists between forest maintenance and the conversion of forests to commercial uses.

Plantations of any crop cannot sustain elephants, for plantations produce per annum more commercial products than age-old forests and even secondary re-growth vegetation. The transnational Heart of Borneo – Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia – could help ensure the conservation of our tropical rainforests as this initiative aims for sustainable development through the coexistence of man and nature.

These elephants inhabit mixed secondary forest containing grassy areas on highly fertile soils of sedimentary rock derivation but near to rivers. Ideally such an environment should see quality food plants for the elephants’ diet such as grasses, gingers, shrubs, bamboo, creepers, and young woody climbers. Like humans, they opt daily for the easiest route to travel. As their habitat in eastern Sabah is increasingly restricted to forest corridors, it is inevitable that their confrontations with humans will increase.

The WWF has made recommendations on ways of ensuring the survival of the Borneo pygmy elephant:

• All remaining lowland forests, which support wild elephants, should be retained under natural forest management and not converted into plantations.

• Forest disturbance needs to be minimised by limiting the extent and frequency of logging in any given management allocation.

• Plantation workers should be strictly limited in their entry to such forests where elephants are known to exist.

• The present, in between plantation, forest corridors used by elephants need to be identified, maintained by laws of entry and extended or enhanced.

It was also recently reported that a memorandum of understanding to improve wildlife corridors was signed by the Sabah Wildlife Department and the Rhino and Forest Fund.

Time is running out for our unique Borneo pygmy elephant, little seen by researchers but sometimes seen and frightened by people living in the area.

Why do they search out our vegetable plots for food? We, as fellow mammals, have let their numbers fall to near extinction. We should ensure that all our school students from an early age are educated in the areas of environment, ecology and conservation for without imparting knowledge of the unique biodiversity of Borneo, the pygmy elephants will fade into geological history in the same way as hairy mammoths!

For more information on the pygmy elephant of Borneo read ‘Satellite Tracking of Borneo’s Pygmy Elephants June 2005 – June 2006’ at