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"Extinct" Pygmy Elephants Found Living on Borneo

John Roach
for National Geographic News
April 23, 2008
 
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 new research suggests the elephants may have descended from a population of elephants that originally lived on the island of Java in what is now Indonesia (see Indonesia map).

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.

He began studying them in 1999 as part of a project to determine how to protect wildlife from the rapid conversion of Southeast Asian forest habitat into palm oil plantations.

He noticed then that the elephants were unusual—shorter and rounder than other Asian elephants and with longer tails.

"They were like little cartoon figures of an elephant," he said.

(See photos of pygmy elephants and the threats facing them.)

His colleagues at Columbia University in New York conducted DNA analysis in 2003 and found the Bornean population to be genetically distinct.

The team concluded the elephants were likely isolated on the island when the last land bridges connecting Borneo to the mainland disappeared some 18,000 years ago.

WWF's Junaidi Payne was a co-author of the genetics study and the new paper.

He and co-authors Earl of Cranbrook and Charles M.U. Leh were unable to find archaeological or historical evidence confirming the existence of so-called pygmy elephants on Borneo beyond a few centuries.

They concluded that the most plausible explanation is the Bornean elephant population "consists of remnant survivors of the extinct Javan population."

The study, the authors add, raises the importance of the Bornean population and suggests other large mammals could be saved from extinction by removal from threatened habitat to safer locations.

(Related: Borneo Elephants: From Pest to Priority [September 4, 2003])

The research was published last week in the Sarawak Museum Journal.

Palm Oil Threat

Simon Hedges is the Asian elephant coordinator for the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society.

He said the new study makes a "plausible case" that the Bornean population is descended from the Javan elephants but that more research is needed before firm conclusions can be drawn.

If the authors of the new study are correct, he added, the remnant Javan population on Borneo will be important for genetic reasons, since it would contain material thought lost from the gene pool.

However, the population will likely be given less of a conservation priority, since it is outside its original wild range.

"[Such] factors are generally seen as downgrading the importance of such populations versus the truly wild animals," he said.

WWF's Stuewe noted that if the finding is confirmed, it will mark another instance in which royalty had inadvertently saved a mammal from extinction.

A similar fate met the alpine ibex, a mountain goat whose remaining population was protected by an Italian king in the 1850s, captive-bred by the Swiss, and reintroduced throughout the Alps in the 1900s.

European royalty imported Przewalski horses from Mongolia in the early 20th century for their stables. The wild horses went extinct in the 1960s. European captives were reintroduced to Mongolia in 1992.

"The ability of these large charismatic mammals to recover from what seem to be extreme [population] bottlenecks apparently is there," Stuewe said.

"There is a chance for these guys if you take care of them."

Palm Oil Threat

Today, Stuewe added, the elephants face new challenges from the rapidly developing palm oil industry in northeastern Borneo, where the remnant population is located.

Driven by surging demand from the biofuels industry, Stuewe said the forest is being converted to palm oil plantations at increasing rates.

"And unfortunately," he said, "oil palm plantations are to elephants what a candy store is to little kids—they just love them."

The love, however, is not shared by plantation managers who view the elephants as a nuisance and kill them. Biologists estimate about a thousand elephants remain on Borneo.

The only hope for these elephants now is protection of the lowland forest as nature reserves or sustainably managed logging concessions, Stuewe said.

Hedges, of the Wildlife Conservation Society, noted the palm oil expansion threatens a host of species on Borneo.

"One ultimately hopes that some of the expansions of the oil palm industry are going to be controlled and done in an appropriate way so that the whole suite of species at risk isn't wiped out," he said.
 

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