Bornean elephants are the same as other Asian elephants – Sunday Observer

Posted: December 28, 2019 at 3:46 pm

The history of the elephants in Borneo is the most interesting of the four sub species of elephants that exist in the wilds of Asia. The four sub species are Elephasmaximusmaximus from Sri Lanka, Elephasmaximusindicus from mainland India, and Elephasmaximussumatranus from Sumatra, Indonesia. The status of the Bornean elephant Elephasmaximusbornensis is yet to be confirmed.

For a long time there was a theory that the Bornean elephants were smaller than the other mainland sub species and were called pigmy elephants. However, now with scientific investigation, it has been established that these elephants are the same as the other Asian elephants. The authorities in Borneo however prefer to continue to refer to them as pigmy elephants. This is because they feel that pigmy elephants would be more attractive to potential tourists. There is a push to promote tourism in Sabah and Borneo in a big way.

There was much speculation as to whether the Bornean elephant is really a wild elephant or whether they were released into the wild by a former Sultan. Dr. Prithiviraj Fernando and some other researchers found that the DNA of the Bornean elephant proved that it was a wild elephant and not feral.

Two different alternative hypotheses have been suggested by researchers. One is that the elephants in Borneo are non-native to Borneo and are a recent introduction, in the 17th century. The introduction hypothesis is based on historical records suggesting that the current population represents the descendants of a domesticated herd that formerly existed on Sulu Island, Philippines, and were introduced to eastern Sabah by the Sultan of Sulu in the 17th century. The original elephants, most likely, came from the Javan elephant population, now extinct. It was further reported that only two elephants were introduced to Jolo (Sulu) Island in the late 13th century, and their descendants were transported to Sabah around 1673.

The other theory is that they are from an ancient colonization several thousand years ago. No fossils have been found, which has led to the theory that it is evidence of a very recent introduction. On the other hand it has been found by researchers, including Dr. Prithiviraj Fernando, that there is DNA divergence of the Borneo sub species in other Asian elephants. This favours the theory of early existence.

The Bornean elephant is morphologically and, in some ways, behaviourally distinct from the elephants of mainland Asia. Their genetic distinctiveness from other mainland Asian elephant subspecies makes them one of the highest priority populations for Asian elephant conservation. It is classified as endangered according to the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List of threatened species.

The social behaviour of the Bornean elephant is the same as that of the other subspecies of the Asian elephant. The herd is led by the matriarch with all adult males being ejected by the herd when they attain puberty. This is to prevent inbreeding. If the male calves remain after they become adults, they will necessarily have to mate with their close relatives. The males wander around on their own or in small bull groups. Only some of the males carry tusks. The percentage of males with tusks in the Bornean population has not been ascertained as yet.

The Bornean elephant population in Sabah is about 2,000 individuals that are currently restricted mainly to a limited number of forest reserves. The main populations are in the Central Forest and Tabin Wildlife Reserve. Herds of elephants are also found in the Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary and the North Kinabatangan Reserve.

The main threats to the survival of the species are population fragmentation and isolation of the existing herds. These elephants do not cross from one reserve to another across human-dominated landscapes that separate forest fragments. This means that since there is no movement into new areas and no new blood flowing, there is the possibility of new species developing within the isolated herds. Conservation measures should be taken to maintain current levels of genetic diversity in fragmented habitats.

The conservation of the Bornean elephant should aim at securing connectivity between spatially distinct populations. It may not be easy but elephant corridors have to be established to facilitate the free and secure movement of these elephants from one range to another.

Pics: Benoit Gossens

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Bornean elephants are the same as other Asian elephants - Sunday Observer

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