Borneo Elephants: From Pest to Priority?

John Pickrell
for National Geographic News
September 4, 2003

A new study may settle a long-standing debate about the origin of Borneo's elephants. Tradition holds that elephants were introduced to Borneo as a gift to the Sultan of Sulu around 250 years ago. But now, new genetic data provides compelling evidence that the elephants may be a distinct population, isolated when Borneo was cut off from the mainland as long as 18,000 years ago.

The finding is significant because it makes Borneo's 2,000 or so Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) one of the highest priority populations for conservation.

"Genetic studies continue to provide data that contradicts what we think we know about nature," said Lori Eggert, conservation geneticist at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. "A population once considered feral, has become one of high priority for conservation."

Popular Belief

Borneo's few thousand elephants are restricted to a small pocket of habitat in the island's northeastern corner. This "limited and unusual distribution," along with the common belief among locals that the elephants were recently introduced, suggested that Borneo's elephants weren't indigenous, said Prithiviraj Fernando, a conservation biologist at Columbia University in New York City.

Fernando is lead author behind the new study, which will be published later this fall in the science journal Public Library of Science Biology.

Borneo's elephants were classified as separate sub-species in 1935. But researchers later reclassified the elephants as members of either the Sumatran or Indian sub-species on the premise that they weren't morphologically, or physically, distinctive enough to warrant a separate grouping.

Little historical evidence has been available to arbitrate in the debate. There is almost no written record of Borneo's elephants before the 18th century. The only existing fossil is a single elephant tooth from a cave in Brunei.

Local tradition holds that the East India Trading Company gifted Indian elephants to the Sultan of Sulu (a nearby island) in 1750.

According to that legend, the Sultan had the elephants released in Borneo, which fell under his rule, and Borneo's elephants today are their descendents.

"It is possible that some elephants were gifted to the sultan, and he did send them to Borneo," said Fernando, "[The notion] was picked up by some writers and got propagated." Many experts never believed that this was the complete story.

Genetically Distinct

Continued on Next Page >>


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