Saturday, August 1, 2009

Our Gentle Giant : The Bornean Pygmy Elephants

I was thinking of what to post on my blog to kick start its inaugural edition when it suddenly came into my mind that i should start it out with posting wildlife images of the BORNEAN PYGMY ELEPHANTS. For me personally, the pygmy elephants are a real joy to observed in the wild and i can definetely sit or even hide for hours just to observe and photographed them in thier natural behaviour. The best moment for me will be when you see these elephants going down to the river to swim and cool off. It is just simply amazing! 

A big herd of pygmy elephant having a SPLASH in the river.

The Bornean Pygmy Elephants (Elephas maximus borneensis) is the smallest of all Elephant species in the world. But don't get fool by its name though, as the pygmy elephants are by no means small. They are GIANTS indeed. An adult male pygmy elephant can grow up to about 2.5 metres high while females to about 2.0 metres in height. In a day this giants can eat up to 150 kg of vegetation, feeding mostly on a wide variety of palms, grasses, tree bark, roots, leaves and wild bananas. Studies have shown that the elephants diet consists of at least 162 species of plants (in 49 families), including several dipterocarp tree species.  This giants also require up to about 200 litres of water to drink in a day and needs supplementary minerals, which they will obtain from natural salt licks. 

 Pygmy elephants feeding on the elephant grasses (Saccharum spontaneum)

The Borneo Pygmy Elephants has just recently been classified as a subspecies of the Asian Elephants. Its nearest of cousins are the Sumatran Elephants (Elephas maximus sumatrensis) found in Sumatra, Western Indonesia, the Indian Elephants (Elephas maximus indicus) found in South Asia with distributions in India, Nepal, Bhutan and Western Myanmar and also the Sri Lankan Elephants (Elephas maximus maximus) found in the South west of Sri Lanka. The pygmy elephants are only found in the island of Borneo but in restricted ranges on the Northeastern part of the island. The highest concentration of these elephants are in the pockets of tropical lowland rainforest of Eastern and Southeastern Sabah and the Northern part of Kalimantan Indonesia. Estimates are around 1200-1500 in the wild but their numbers could be much lower than this.

Pygmy elephants traveling on their ancient migratory route.

The origins of the Pygmy Elephants has always been debated by scientist all around the world. Until recently the pygmy elephants of Borneo were believed to be a remnant population of a domesticated herd (suspected as the now already extinct Javan elephants) abandoned on the island by the Sultan of Sulu in the 17th century. But a 2003 DNA analysis carried out by WWF, Columbia University, Sabah Wildlife Department and Local Researchers proved that the pygmy elephants  are 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. These subspecies currently living in Borneo possibly became isolated from other Asian elephant populations when land bridges that linked Borneo with the other Sunda Island and the mainland disappeared after the Last Glacial Maximum. Isolation may be the reason that these elephants has evolved to become smaller, more rounder 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).

The pygmy elephants migration.

The pygmy elephants play a very important role as "architects of the rainforest." This is because the elephants create large clearings in the forest where they gather at highly rich in minerals salt lick and preferred drinking spots. After hundreds and even thousands of years of continuous elephant trampling and digging, some of these clearings may reach several hundred metres across. The elephants keep these clearings open by trampling young colonizing plants and also by feeding on the new leaves. These clearings attract other species of animals which drink at the water hole and allows carnivores to hunt prey exposed in the open area. The pygmy elephants, by feeding on young leaves in the forest, also allow more light to penetrate the canopy and reach down through the gloomy rainforest floor. They not only clear areas, but also contribute to tree dispersal, in that several species of seed will only germinate after passing through an elephant's digestive system.

A matriarch female with a satellite collar.

In July 2005, five pygmy elephants were darted and outfitted with satellite collars by the Sabah Wildlife Department with WWF assistance, after tracking the elephants on foot through the dense jungle proved to be too difficult over long periods. Since elephants live in matriarchal societies, only adult female elephants were collared so that each elephant collared represents a whole herd's movements. Each of this collared elephants belongs to a herd of about 30-50 elephants but they often split off into smaller groups for days or weeks at a time. The collars sent GPS locations to a WWF computer via satellite as often as once a day. This was the first long-term study done on the Bornean Pygmy Elephants. Satellite data revealed that the remaining herds of Borneo elephants prefer jungles on flat lowlands and in river valleys, the same areas preferred by loggers and for oil palm plantations. Human activity has pushed elephants to unsuitable swamp areas and restricted their ranges to narrow corridors. Over the last four decades, about 40% of the forest cover in Sabah has been lost to logging, plantations and human settlements.

A "HORNY" full grown adult male pygmy elephant.

So how we can help in conserving this gentle giants are by being more observant anytime we come across the pygmy elephants in any nature areas that we visit. Being more observant means that we have to keep and eye and look real carefully at each individual elephant to see if there is any signs or visible injuries on thier bodies, to take note of any unusual behaviour seen and also the whereabout location of where the herd is travelling or feeding. Why this is important is because the location on where we have seen this elephant migrating or feeding is a good indicator of what might be a traditional elephant migratory route and by recording this down or even better the GPS co ordinates of this area, we will be able to share this data with relevant organizations who will use it to convince stakeholders of the land not to destroy or develop the land as it is an important elephant migratory pathway. Taking photos of each elephants are also important as we will be able to help elephant researchers on the field to identify each individual elephant and from which herd it might come from. All of this data will come in handy to conservation bodies such as WWF or goverment department like the Sabah Wildlife Department.

Lucky visitors observing the pygmy elephants feeding along the river.

In Borneo, these giants are located in areas stretching from Sebuku Sembakung in north-east Kalimantan through to Maliau, Danum, Kinabatangan and Tabin on the eastern side of Sabah. The best place to see them will be in the Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary especially during thier migratory season. This is when large herds of the pygmy elephants will come together along the river and at times reaching up to more than 6o individuals in a large congregation. Most of this photos are taken in the Kinabatangan. Enjoy and lets help out these gentle giants, one of our Natural Wonders of BORNEO.

A herd of pygmy elephants.

A young pygmy elephant suckling its mum.

Just cooling off.

A sub adult pygmy elephant male enjoying his time in the river.

Pygmy elephants are "HEAVY DRINKERS."

Pygmy elephants are BIG WILD animals so always keep a safe distance!

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