for National Geographic News
A gift exchange between Asian rulers several centuries ago may have inadvertently saved a population of elephants from extinction, according to a new study.
Today a small population of unusually placid and genetically distinct elephants lives in the northeast corner of Borneo, a Southeast Asian island shared by Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei (see map).
Scientists have long wondered why the elephants' range is so restricted and why they are less aggressive than other wild elephants in Asia.
The finding is based on an analysis of archaeological and historical records. It supports a long-held local belief that the elephants arrived there from the island of Sulu, which is now part of the Philippines.
The sultan of Java is thought to have sent the Javan elephants as a gift to the sultan of Sulu. For unknown reasons, descendants of the elephants were subsequently shipped to Borneo and abandoned.
Back on Java, the original population went extinct by the end of the 18th century, after the arrival of Europeans in Southeast Asia.
The gift to the sultan of Sulu may therefore have inadvertently kept the lineage alive.
"There's a lot of literature on these exchanges between the different courts," said Michael Stuewe, an elephant biologist for WWF, an international conservation organization.
"These elephants may be the oldest example of a wild [mammal] population that is saved without intention to do so by royalty and through a captive detour," Stuewe said.
DNA and Archaeology
Stuewe was not an author of the new study, but he was part of the research team that showed the Bornean elephants to be a genetically distinct population of Asian elephants.
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