Save Our Gentle Giants in Borneo
Borneo Pygmy Elephants
By Kimberly Chung, Communications Officer,
Borneo Programme, WWF-Malaysia
The iconic cartoon character “Dumbo” may not be too far from most thoughts when talking about elephants. But in reality, elephants have been observed to display intelligent behaviour that is far from what this derogatory name suggests. They are well known to be the largest terrestrial mammal found across the world, and our large friends can also be found in Borneo.
A 2003 DNA analysis carried out by Columbia University in collaboration with WWF found that the Borneo elephants are genetically distinct from other Asian elephants, thereby recognising it as a likely new subspecies. The DNA evidence suggests that these elephants were isolated about 300,000 years ago from their cousins on mainland Asia and Sumatra. Their smaller body size compared to the Asian elephants in other parts of the range has given them their world renowned name: the Borneo Pygmy Elephants. As the name suggests, they can only be found in Borneo, particularly in the state of Sabah and northern parts of Kalimantan, Indonesia.
The elephants usually travel in herds of around six to 20 individuals. These groups are usually led by females and occasionally merge with other groups in more open feeding grounds, particularly on river banks. As the male pygmy elephants reach sexual maturity, they become more solitary, sometimes also travelling in groups of two or three. From time to time, they follow the herds for mating.
Elephants Help Keep Forests Healthy
Known to be the largest forest herbivore, one adult pygmy elephant can consume about 150 kilograms of vegetation per day. Their diet mostly consists of species of palms, grasses and forest fruits, and sometimes even wild bananas. Their required minerals come from salt licks or clay-rich soils. Their diet includes forest fruits, making them good seed dispersers that carry seeds across long distances through the forests so that these seeds can germinate and take root, thereby helping the spread of plants and forests which will serve as food and shelter for other wildlife in the area. Elephants are an umbrella species – protecting more of their habitat will mean protecting habitats of many other species as well as the overall biodiversity of the rich tropical rain forests.
As with most wildlife, elephants rely on the forests to survive. Lush forests are not only important for wildlife but also to mankind – it is nature’s gift to us to slow down climate change, provide freshwater and reduce flash floods, provide breaths of fresh air and create a healthy ecosystem.
Continuous loss of lowland and valley forests is threatening the lives of these gentle giants. Large mammals such as the Borneo Pygmy Elephant require abundant space to roam, mate and feed. With a continuously shrinking habitat, these mammals are forced into more frequent contact with people, causing an increase in human-elephant conflict in the region. Forest conversions resulting in loss of habitat and killing by humans are two primary threats to long-term elephant survival.
These endemic Borneo Pygmy Elephants are dying and losing their homes and families. With about 1,500 of them left in the wild in Borneo, urgent and continuous actions need to be performed in order to conserve these gentle giants.
Recognised as unique to Borneo and with the small population remaining albeit in a fragmented range, WWF-Malaysia sees the urgency in protecting the endangered Borneo Pygmy Elephants. Our conservation efforts in Sabah include:
- Elephant satellite collaring to identify their key space requirements and to reduce future conflict,
- The establishment of wildlife corridors to connect fragmented habitats,
- Promoting a harmonious relationship between humans and wildlife, as well as
- Various collaborations with government and non-government agencies on wildlife surveys, research and building capacities of protected area management.
These efforts include massive amounts of teamwork and constant funding for continuous research. An activity such as satellite collaring is critical to conservation efforts as these collars are able to provide information to researchers on elephant movement and space requirements. Observing the movements of these Pygmy elephants allow further understanding of their behaviour.
In the event that a Borneo Pygmy Elephant steps into an oil palm plantation, researchers will then receive an alert from the satellite collars and will thus be able to perform the necessary steps to avoid human-wildlife conflict. This creates a safer environment for both the Pygmy elephants and humans. This data can also help in making changes to land-use in order to find long-term solution for conflict that elephants have with people.
The Borneo Pygmy Elephant currently falls under Schedule 2 of Sabah Wildlife Conservation Enactment 1997 which makes it a protected animal.
Efforts advocating more areas of elephant range as protected forests are paying off as the Sabah Forestry Department has announced more areas as protected forests. These forest areas are now protected by law from any form of land conversion or degradation due to timber exploitation. WWF-Malaysia, along with our conservation partners in Sabah, advocated for protection status to forests in Gunung Rara forest reserve in the central forest landscape of Sabah, so that a protected forest connectivity could be established in the elephant range between Gunung Rara and Ulu Segama forest reserves. The Sabah Forestry Department has upgraded some 60,000 hectares of commercial forests as protected forests in 2012 in response.
Continuous hard work and funding are required in order to gain further achievements in the conservation of elephants and other wildlife in their habitat.