Are Borneo Pygmy Elephants Javan?

Posted by: Loren Coleman on April 19th, 2008

Borneo’s pygmy elephants may be descendants of an extinct Javan elephant race, saved by chance by an 18th century ruler, according to a new study just released.

The study suggests that a small number of opposite-sex elephants can produce a thriving progeny of thousands if left undisturbed on an island, giving fresh hope to conservationists trying to protect nearly extinct species of large mammals.

“If proven, this fascinating story would demonstrate that very small populations of large mammals can be saved from the brink of extinction (simply by) moving a few individuals, from a seemingly doomed population, to a different and safer habitat,” the study published in the Sarawak Museum Journal says.

Study co-author Junaidi Payne said the Sultan of Java in Indonesia in the 18th century likely sent some pygmy elephants as gifts to the Sultan of Sulu in the Philippines. The Sultan of Sulu at some point apparently shipped them to Borneo and abandoned them there for unknown reasons.

“There are a number of historical records of elephants shipped between various places in Asia by rulers as gifts to impress others,” Payne told the Sarawak
Museum Journal

Borneo pygmy elephants, which are genetically distinct from other subspecies, grow less than about 8 feet compared to about 10 feet in height of Asian male elephants.

They also have babyish faces, large ears and longer tails. They are more rotund and less aggressive.

The pygmy elephants in Java were extinct by the end of the 18th century, but the few that were brought to Borneo thrived, the study found.

Historically, Borneo never had any elephants and the origins of pygmy elephants – a distinct subspecies of its mainland Asian cousin – remained shrouded in mystery until now.

Borneo is a large island shared by Indonesia, Malaysia and the sultanate of Brunei. It is separated by at least 250 miles of sea from Java, the main island in Indonesia. Sulu is much farther to the east.

Payne said just one fertile female and one fertile male elephant, if left undisturbed in enough good habitat, could in theory end up as a population of 2,000 elephants within less than 300 years.

“And that may be what happened in practice here,” said Payne, who works for the global conservation group World Wildlife Fund.

There are about 1,000 pygmy elephants in the wild in Borneo today, mostly in the Malaysian state of Sabah.

“If they came from Java, this fascinating story demonstrates the value of efforts to save even small populations of certain species, often thought to be doomed,” said Christy Williams, coordinator of WWF’s Asian elephant and rhino program.

Augustine Tuuga, assistant director of the Sabah Wildlife Department, said the study confirms what many conservationists have long believed – that a small number of animals can flourish into large herds even though they may have multiplied by inbreeding.

“My own feeling is that as long as there is no continous hunting and there is no problem about diseases their numbers will multiply,” he said.


Loren Coleman About Loren Coleman
Loren Coleman is one of the world’s leading cryptozoologists, some say “the” leading living cryptozoologist. Certainly, he is acknowledged as the current living American researcher and writer who has most popularized cryptozoology in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Starting his fieldwork and investigations in 1960, after traveling and trekking extensively in pursuit of cryptozoological mysteries, Coleman began writing to share his experiences in 1969. An honorary member of Ivan T. Sanderson’s Society for the Investigation of the Unexplained in the 1970s, Coleman has been bestowed with similar honorary memberships of the North Idaho College Cryptozoology Club in 1983, and in subsequent years, that of the British Columbia Scientific Cryptozoology Club, CryptoSafari International, and other international organizations. He was also a Life Member and Benefactor of the International Society of Cryptozoology (now-defunct). Loren Coleman’s daily blog, as a member of the Cryptomundo Team, served as an ongoing avenue of communication for the ever-growing body of cryptozoo news from 2005 through 2013. He returned as an infrequent contributor beginning Halloween week of 2015. Coleman is the founder in 2003, and current director of the International Cryptozoology Museum in Portland, Maine.

3 Responses to “Are Borneo Pygmy Elephants Javan?”

  1. DWA responds:

    Loren: may be a bone to pick here.

    This from the World Wildlife Fund site:


    Until recently the pygmy elephants of Borneo were believed to be a remnant population of a domesticated herd abandoned on the island by the Sultan of Sulu in the 17th century. But a 2003 DNA analysis carried out by WWF and Columbia University proved that the pygmy elephants were genetically distinct from other Asian elephants, thereby recognizing it as a likely new subspecies and emphasizing its conservation priority.

    According to the DNA evidence these elephants were isolated about 300,000 years ago from their cousins on mainland Asia and Sumatra. During that period, they became smaller with relatively larger ears, longer tails and straighter tusks.

    The evolutionary history of Borneo’s elephants justifies their recognition as a separate evolutionary significant unit (ESU).


    It sounds as if Borneo (if the DNA tests can be trusted) has not only had elephants historically, but has had them since substantially PRE-history. Genetic isolation dating from 300K years ago indicates that they were on Borneo long before then.

    The rest of the story:

  2. Tatzelwurm responds:

    This is very interesting.

  3. Alligator responds:

    Thanks for the link DWA. Intriguing, a new species/subspecies of elephant.

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