Borneo pygmy elephants are a subspecies of the Asian elephant -but how did they find their way to an isolated corner of Borneo?
Elephants were roaming the earth for many millions of years before humans, yet the Borneo pygmy elephant (Elephas maximus borneensis) has succeeded in baffling scientists for almost all of the short time they have been on the planet. There are now thought to be less than 1500 pygmy elephants left in Borneo, and as conservationists strive to stop these gentle giants from becoming extinct, scientists are in a similar race to discover where the Borneo pygmy elephant came from in the first place.
The World’s Smallest Elephant
Borneo pygmy elephants, or Bornean pygmy elephants as they are also known, are the smallest elephants in the world with the males reaching around 2.5 meters in height. They are also noticeably tamer than other elephant subspecies–often allowing Borneo’s many wildlife tourists to get within a few meters of them without showing any signs of aggression.
Along with their laid back nature, the fact that the Borneo pygmy elephant population is confined to a small area on the north-eastern tip of Borneo has led many scientists to theorize that they are descendants of a domestic population abandoned on the island in the 17th century. Local belief is that these elephants were originally imported as gifts to the Sultan of Sulu, as was the custom hundreds of years ago in Asia.
Adding weight to this theory is a marked lack of any archaeological evidence supporting an ancient population of elephants anywhere else in Borneo, meaning the historical population must have remained in exactly the same area without dispersing –highly unusual behavior for such large mammals.
Asian Elephant DNA Evidence
Whilst we have long been able to distinguish the species of elephants – African and Asian – from one another, placing the many elephant populations into subspecies has proved much trickier. The Borneo pygmy elephant has been variously grouped with the mainland Asian subspecies (Elephas maximus indicus, also known as the Indian elephant) and the Sumatran subspecies (Elephas maximus sumatrensis); however, a 2003 DNA analysis project by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Columbia University proved once and for all that the Borneo pygmy elephants are genetically distinct from both of these populations.
Existing DNA data shows there are four extant (surviving) subspecies of Asian elephant:
- Indian Elephant (E. m. indicus Cuvier, 1798)
- Sri Lankan Elephant (E. m. maximus Linnaeus, 1758)
- Sumatran Elephant (E. m. sumatranus Temminck, 1847)
- Borneo Elephant (E. m. borneensis Deraniyagala, 1950)
Borneo Pygmy Elephants Could Be Javan Elephants
Despite the consensus that Borneo pygmy elephants are a distinct subspecies, the debate over their origin rages on, with a 2008 paper ‘Origins of the Elephants Elephas Maximus L. of Borneo’ by Cranbrook et al continuing to argue the case for a domestic ancestor. “Just one fertile female and one fertile male elephant, if left undisturbed in enough good habitat, could, in theory, end up as a population of 2,000 elephants within less than 300 years,” said Junaidi Payne of WWF, one of the paper’s co-authors. “And that maybe what happened in practice here.”
The prospect of Borneo pygmy elephants being the descendants of elephants imported from Sulu, an island province in the Philippines, is an exciting one. Sulu elephants were in turn thought to have originated in Java, where the subspecies were hunted to extinction in the 1800s. If it turns out Borneo pygmy elephants really are misplaced Javan elephants –an entire subspecies has essentially come back from the dead.
Whether or not Borneo pygmy elephants are a distinct Bornean subspecies, or whether they represent a surviving population of a previously extinct subspecies remains to be seen. DNA analysis has proved they do not belong to the Indian or Sumatran subspecies. What they are, or where they came from still remains a mystery, and with the current threats of habitat loss and fragmentation, there is a strong possibility these enigmatic giants will disappear before anyone manages to solve the riddle.