May 26, 2008

Borneo Pygmy Elephant


Common Name - Borneo Pygmy Elephant

Scientific Name - Elephas maximus or sometimes Elephas maximus borneensis, although they have not been officially determined to be a separate subspecies from mainland Asian elephants

Habitat - Tropical and Subtropical Moist Broadleaf Forests

Location - Sabah, Borneo (northeast tip of the island), Malaysia and occasionally into East Kalimantan, Indonesia

Status - Endangered

Population - Unknown, estimated to be 1500 or fewer

Borneo pygmy elephants are smaller than other Asian elephants. The males may only grow to less than 2.5 meters, while other Asian elephants grow up to 3 meters. They also have babyish faces, larger ears, longer tails that reach almost to the ground and are more rotund. These elephants are also less aggressive than other Asian elephants.


Major Habitat Type

Concentrated in Sabah, particularly the floodplain, tributaries and the upper catchment of the Kinabatangan River - but their route has been cut off by illegal loggers and the elephants have not been there in years. They occasionally range into East Kalimantan, Indonesia.

Biogeographic Realm - Indo- Malaya

Range States - Malaysia, Indonesia

Geographical Location - Northeast Borneo

Physical Description

Why is this species important?

Until recently the pygmy elephants of Borneo were believed to be a remnant population of a domesticated herd abandoned on the island by the Sultan of Sulu in the 17th century. But a 2003 DNA analysis carried out by WWF and Columbia University proved that the pygmy elephants were genetically distinct from other Asian elephants, thereby recognizing it as a likely new subspecies and emphasizing its conservation priority.

According to the DNA evidence these elephants were isolated about 300,000 years ago from their cousins on mainland Asia and Sumatra. During that period, they became smaller with relatively larger ears, longer tails and straighter tusks.

The evolutionary history of Borneo's elephants justifies their recognition as a separate evolutionary significant unit (ESU).

Ecology and habitat


The Asian elephant is one of the largest forest herbivores in the world. A single adult can eat up to 150 kgs of vegetation everyday, feeding mostly on species of palms, grasses and wild bananas. They also require minerals which they receive from salt licks or mineral concentrations in limestone outcrops.


The primary threat to these elephants is the loss of continuous forests. Mammals of their size require large feeding grounds and viable breeding populations with sizeable male- to female ratios. Shrinking forests have also brought the elephants into more frequent contact with people, increasing human elephant conflict in the region.

The large blocks of forests they require are now being fragmented by encroachment in forest areas and conversion of natural forests into commercial plantations. Human disturbances within forests such as logging, increased agriculture, building of palm oil mills with associated settlements and hunting are rapidly breaking up contact between sub populations, as well as minimizing the areas of forests available for each small group to live and feed on.


The Borneo Elephant, also called the Borneo Pygmy Elephant, (Elephas maximus borneensis) is a subspecies of the Asian Elephant and found in north Borneo (east Sabah and extreme north Kalimantan).


The origin of Borneo elephants is controversial. Two competing hypotheses argued that they are either indigenous, or were introduced, descending from elephants imported in the 16th–18th centuries. In 2003, mitochondrial DNA research has discovered that its ancestors separated from the mainland population during the Pleistocene, about 300,000 years ago. The subspecies currently living in Borneo possibly became isolated from other Asian elephant populations when land bridges that linked Borneo with the other Sunda Islands and the mainland disappeared after the Last Glacial Maximum, 18,000 years ago. Isolation may be the reason it has become smaller with relatively larger ears, longer tails, and relatively straight tusks. Other scientists argue that the Borneo elephant was introduced by the Sultan of Sulu and abandoned, and that the population on Sulu, never considered to be native, was imported from Java. Thus the Borneo elephant may be actually the extinct Javan elephant. Many facts support this hypothesis, including no archaeological evidence of long term elephant habitation of Borneo, a corroboration in folklore and the lack of the elephants colonizing the entire island of Borneo


The Borneo elephant is smaller than all the other subspecies of the Asian elephant. The Borneo elephant is also remarkably tame and passive, another reason some scientists think it was descended from a domestic collection.

Conservation status

Wild Asian elephant populations are disappearing as expanding human development disrupts their migration routes, depletes their food sources, and destroys their habitat. Recognizing these elephants as native to Borneo makes their conservation a high priority and gives biologists important clues about how to manage them.

In Aug 2007 it was reported that there are probably not more than 1,000 pygmy elephants left in Sabah, after a two year study by WWF.