DNA Tests Prove Borneo's Elephants Are Unique

PETALING JAYA, Malaysia, September 3, 2003 (ENS) - Elephants living on the island of Borneo are an indigenous and genetically distinct subspecies of Asian elephant, according to new genetic tests. Conservationists say the finding underscores the need for increased and newly focused efforts to preserve the subspecies, known as the Borneo pygmy elephant.

The DNA testing, carried out by Columbia University's Department of Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology, confirms suspicions that prompted scientists to investigate whether the Borneo elephants were a subspecies. elephant

Conservationists estimate there are some 1,000 Borneo pygmy elephants left in the wild. (Photo courtesy WWF-Malaysia )
Different characteristics between Borneo elephants and Asian elephants had already been recognized - the Borneo elephants have bigger ears, longer tails and straighter tusks than their cousins on mainland Asia and Sumatra and are smaller in size.

The Borneo elephants are also "relatively tame and mild tempered compared to other Asian elephants," said WWF-Malaysia Chairman Tengku Zainal Adlin.

The tameness of the Borneo elephants was also at the center of the debate over their origin.

One theory surmised that they descended from tame elephants presented as gifts to the Sultan of Sulu by the British East India Company in the 17th century.

The second theory argued that they are indigenous to Borneo, arriving from Sumatra via a bridge of swampy land when sea levels were lower during the ice age more than 10,000 years ago and then being trapped on the island after sea levels rose and severed the link with Sumatra. elephant

The finding ends the controversy over how elephants came to the island of Borneo. (Photo courtesy WWF-Malaysia )
The island of Borneo lies in the South China Sea and is shared by Malaysia and Indonesia.

The DNA analysis showed that Borneo's elephants were isolated about 300,000 years ago from their cousins on mainland Asia and Sumatra, and conservationists say the genetic distinctness of the elephants makes them one of the highest priority populations for conservation.

WWF wants the Borneo elephants to be managed separately from other Asian elephants and says they should not be crossbred with other Asian elephants. The organization estimates there are some 1,000 Borneo pygmy elephants left on the island.

The major threat to the subspecies is habitat loss from logging and farming, according to WWF, and further research is needed on their reproductive rates, juvenile survival, and other indicators of detrimental effects of inbreeding.

More than 100,000 Asian elephants may have existed at the start of the 20th century, but conservationists estimate that only 35,000 to 50,000 now remain in the wild. African elephants are less threatened - there are an estimated 300,000 to 480,000 left in the wild - but both species of elephant face pressure from habitat loss and poaching.