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The Bornean Elephant is a subspecies of the Asian Elephant, physically and behaviourally different from the elephants of mainland Asia. Known locally and commonly as ‘Bornean Pygmy elephants’, they are about a fifth smaller than mainland Indian elephants but similar in size to populations of Sumatra and the Malaysian Peninsula (5). They are generally more rotund in appearance with shorter trunks and a smaller rounder face, which makes their ears appear larger. They also have a long tail, which in some individuals reaches all the way down to the ground (1). Only some males display tusks, which are shorter and straighter than in the mainland elephants.
The behaviour of the Bornean Elephant is said to be much gentler and less aggressive than the mainland Asian Elephants, supporting the idea that they may be descended from a domesticated population. However, in the Lower Kinabatangan, in the state of Sabah, Malaysian Borneo, elephants are hostile towards any man-made objects within the forest. For example, traps set by the local community to catch smaller mammals are located and trampled by elephants and any part of a settlement that encroaches into their forest would be in danger of destruction.
Elephants are able to swim very well and can cross river barriers in order to move through their home ranges. Although the Bornean Elephant is the largest of Borneo’s mammals, whilst in the forest these elephants are able to move freely without causing damage to trees and smaller vegetation.
The Bornean Elephant is found in the Lower Kinabatangan floodplain in the state of Sabah, Malaysian Borneo and, occasionally, in the Indonesian state of East Kalimantan. Generally they are found in lowland forest, which in the Kinabatangan is seasonally inundated with floodwaters.
Threats and Conservation
There is continued debate on the status of the Bornean Elephant, which has been genetically distinct from the mainland species for over 300,000 years (1). It is now thought that these elephants might be descendents of a population of Javan elephants, brought over to Borneo by the Sultan of Sulu. Since the Javan elephant was hunted to extinction on Java and Sulu during the 19th Century, this makes the Bornean Elephant of great conservation interest (3).
There are an estimated 1000-1600 individuals left and the largest population is found in the Lower Kinabatangan floodplain. Unfortunately, the increase in global demand for palm oil has led to increased human-elephant conflict and the elephants are now severely threatened by habitat loss as deforestation for oil palm plantations and logging continues (4).
(1) Borneo Pygmy Elephant [WWF Bornean Pygmy Elephant Species Page]
(2) IUCN Red List for Asian Elephant
(3) Extinct Javan elephants may have been rediscovered – in Borneo [Wildlife Extra News Story]
(4) Satellite tracking of Borneo’s Pygmy Elephants, WWF and Sabah Wildlife Department, 2005-2006
(5) Origins of the elephants Elephas maximus L. of Borneo, 2007, Earl of Cranbrook, J.Payne, Charles. M.U.Leh, The Sarawak Museum Journal Vol LXIII No.84