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What’s the True Origin of the Borneo Elephant?

Could it be true that a gift exchange between Asian rulers several centuries ago inadvertently saved a population of elephants from extinction? Pygmy elephants, once native to Java (but sadly now extinct in the area), were found alive and well in northern Borneo in the early 21st century, and this has led to new thinking on how the elephants, found to be genetically similar to those from Java, came to be in the area.

Although the Asian Elephant can be found across Asia and Africa, the genetically distinct subspecies Pygmy or, more commonly, Bornean Pygmy Elephant, can only be found – as you may have guessed – on the rugged island of Borneo, at center of Southeast Asia.

Compared to other Asian elephants, the Bornean Pygmies have much shorter trunks, less pronounced tusks and smaller, rounder faces than their brethren on the mainland; they have very long tails, which can sometimes reach all the way down to the ground. This gives the island-dwelling pachyderm a comparable, though more rotund, stature to those of the elephants found in Sumatra and the Malaysian Peninsula. However, don’t be fooled by the name, these are still very large creatures – an adult male Pygmy elephant can grow up to over eight feet high, while a mainland Asian elephant is little more than a foot taller.

In order to hulk this bulk around, the Pygmy elephant can eat up to 330 lbs of vegetation a day – feeding on a wide variety of palms, grasses, tree bark, roots, leaves and wild bananas. They also consume up to 53 gallons of water a day, and supplement their diet with minerals obtained from salt licks deposits. It is these salt licks which might be the key to the restricted range of the inscrutable beasts’ territory. Borneo seems to be the ideal environment for the elephant – it’s hot, it’s humid and many areas are prone to flooding. Yet the Pygmy elephant confines itself to the northeastern tip of the island, with herds divided between the flood lands of Lower Kinabatangan in Sabah, part of Malaysian Borneo, and East Kalimantan – the Indonesian area of the island. One hypothesis suggests that their limited ranging is down to the scarcity of essential minerals in Bornean soil that are necessary to their survival. The lack of available nutrients would make the naturally occurring salt licks vital to their diet.


The Borneo Pigmy Elephant is the largest land mamal in Borneo.

The Borneo Pygmy Elephant is the largest land mammal in Borneo.


But, how exactly did this vertically challenged elephant find its way to Borneo in the first place? The short answer is no one is exactly sure, and this lack of veracity has produced two very different takes on the subject. Let’s explore the history of these animals, as it was and is now believed to have happened.

One theory, grounded in traditional evolutionary biology, follows the findings of a 2003 report by the WWF, Columbia University and Sabah Wildlife Department into the DNA analysis of the Pygmy Elephant. The report showed that Pygmy elephants are genetically distinct from other Asian elephants, therefore classifying it as new subspecies and emphasizing its conservation priority.

According to the DNA evidence, these elephants migrated to Borneo from Asia and Sumatra about 300,000 years ago. But when sea levels rose, and drowned the land bridges connecting the island to the mainland at the end of the last Glacial Maximum or Ice Age (18,000 years ago), the Pygmy elephant developed in isolation, evolving its signature more stumpy look.

At first, the 2003 study seemed to suggest an answer to the riddle of the Bornean elephant’s provenance, but there was a problem. The paper drew the conclusion that because the elephant was different to other subspecies in Southeast Asia – and they are really quite different – then they must be from the island.

The only significant remains of a Pygmy elephant specimen on the island – sent to Gathorne Gathorne-Hardy, the Earl of Cranbrook (UK), in the 1970’s – was a supposedly ancient tooth belonging to an early Bornean Pygmy. But when the Earl rediscovered it in 2007, results from radio-dating undertaken by the British Museum of Natural History showed the mysterious denture to be of no great age.


A family of  the Borneo Elephantelephants

A family of Borneo Elephants


The second theory attributes their presence on the island very differently. Elephants are proud, physically strong creatures, with a noble bearing and were thus considered to be suitable animals to be given as presents between the ruling classes of Southeast Asia. Around 1395 it was documented that the Raja of Java gave two elephants to the Raja Baginda of Sulu. Introduced into western Borneo, it is rumoured the pair were the founders of a feral herd of elephants that were hunted and transported to the flood lands in northeast Borneo. This fascinating idea is, however, contradicted by the fact there is no evidence of Borneans ever having practiced hunting and transporting elephants – although it is possible for just one male and one female elephant, left to their own devices, to create a population of 4000 in under 600 years.

Another very similar and popular story also finds it source with Gathorne-Hardy who, subsequent to the tooth discovery, uncovered a 1908 account by a Syrian-born American living in the Philippines, who wrote the elephant was introduced – again because of diplomatic relations – when hundreds of Javanese elephants were presented as gift to the Sultan of Sulu from the Sultan of Java (another version, cites the East Indian Company of Great Britain as the generous benefactor, but much later, in 1750). The Sultan housed most of his herd on Jolo, then the capital of the Sultanate of Sulu but now a part of the Philippines. But, due to a lack of real estate on Jolo, a small number were sent to the northeast of Borneo. Here, the generally tame animals were a valuable part of the thriving ship-building industry, transporting tons of felled trees from deep within the rainforests to the coast. Part of this arrangement was that the elephants were released into the rainforests to better protect them against the marauding armies of warring states and mercenaries.

Both of these folktales suggest the Bornean elephant is a surviving group of, what had been previously thought to be extinct, Javanese elephant. This would make the Bornean Pygmy the only known example of translocation of elephants on record, and a very precious and important source of data for the species, as well as expediting the urgency of their conservation.

Even with groundbreaking scientific research and pertinent historical evidence, neither of these theories have been proven to be 100% accurate – ensuring, for the time being, the origins of the subspecies will remain shrouded in the mists of antiquity. Either way, wouldn’t you want to see one of these mysterious creatures as it thunders through the jungle of its own environment?

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