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ENDANGERED: The Borneo Pygmy Elephant

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Standing at a full three feet smaller than its Asian elephant cousins, the Borneo Elephant is rather diminutive in stature. Located in Indonesia and Malaysia, the Borneo Pygmy Elephant is also far 'gentler' than the Asian or African elephants, and has oversized ears, plump bellies, and long tails.

 

Borneo Pymgy Elephant/ Image Credit: Bas Leenders on Flickr

 

There are now 'fewer than 1,500' individuals of this sweet, modern-day Dumbo left in the wild, their population having dramatically declined.

How have humans contributed to their endangerment?

WWF cites the main reasons for the Pygmy Elephant’s population decline as habitat loss, habitat degradation and fragmentation, and rising human-elephant conflict. Tragically, in 2017, it was found that even these tiny remote elephants are also subject to poaching for their ivory tusks.

The Pygmy Elephant needs a large range of forest to feed and breed in. But with growing human populations and  increasing demands for food, much of their natural habitat is being converted into plantations – the main disruptive human activity being logging and palm oil plantations. Over the last four decades alone, 40% of forest cover has been lost to logging, plantations, and human housing.

With human activity reducing their feeding range, Pygmy Elephants now need to walk through towns, villages, and farms to move between their natural forests. This has led to an increase in human-elephant conflict. While passing through populated areas, these elephants inevitably eat and trample crops. In only July of last year, a Pygmy Elephant calf was shot dead after destroying crops and farmland.

 

Image Credit: amanderson2 on Flickr

 

Why is the Borneo Pygmy elephant so special?

It is vital that we preserve the Borneo Pygmy Elephant. In addition to the moral standpoint that no animal should be made extinct due to human activity, the genetically unique properties of the Pygmy Elephant make them one of the highest priority populations for elephant conservation.

The taxonomy of the pygmy elephant is hotly debated, with scientists falling into different camps as to whether they are indigenous to Borneo or descended from domesticated elephants. The smaller build and gentle nature of these elephants leads many to believe that they are descended from domesticated Asian elephants.

In 2003, WWF conducted a mitochondrial DNA analysis of the Pygmy Elephant. Results showed the species to be genetically distinct from elephants in mainland Asia and were most likely separated from them 300,000 years ago. They are thought to be descended from the now extinct Javan elephant.

 "If it turns out that [the Javan elephant] really made it in one little corner of Borneo, it would be a remarkable discovery," said Michael Stuewe to The Scientist in 2008.

WWF has been working to save the Borneo Pygmy Elephant since 2005, 'work [ing] with plantation managers and owners in key Pygmy Elephant habitat in an effort to create reforested wildlife corridors that allow elephants and other speices to move freely between natural forests'.  

 Regardless of the elephants’ origins, it is vital that this gentle and (somewhat) giant animal is protected and conserved: with less than 1,500 left in the wild, and with multiple reports of deaths due to conflict with humans, the focus must now turn to protecting their habitat, and decreasing their conflict with humans.

Read more from the ENDANGERED feature.

 Lead Image Credit: Bernard DUPONT on Flickr




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