March 3, 2009
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Bornean Pygmy Elephants
When you think of elephants, I’ll bet you think of large grey beasts strolling across the African savannah. Did you know there are also smaller, rounder elephants foraging their way through heavy rainforests?
Asian (Indian) elephants Elphas maximus are found in India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Indochina and south east Asia. They are smaller than their African cousins, have a more arched back, and only the males have tusks. Plus their ears are shaped like the Indian continent, whereas the larger ears of the African elephant are shaped like Africa. Really – check it out next time you’re at a zoo with both elephant species!
But elephants get even smaller. In 2003, Borneo’s pygmy elephants were declared a new subspecies of the Asian elephant. Pygmy elephants are smaller, chubbier and more gentle than other Asian elephants. They are found only on the northeast tip of Borneo, in the Malaysian state of Sabah. Very little is known of these animals, including how many survive. In August 2007, their population was estimated to be less than 1,000.
The same satellite system used by the U.S. military helped the World Wildlife Fund shed light on their little-known world. Five elephants were collared by WWF and the Sabah, Malaysia, Wildlife Department, with support from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Among the findings from the study:
- The elephants’ movements are noticeably affected by human activity. Elephants living in areas with the most human disturbance, such as logging and commercial agriculture, spend more time on the move than elephants in more remote areas. One of the collared elephants living near human activity, dubbed Bod Tai, covered a third more ground than did Nancy, who lives in more remote jungle.
- Most of the elephants spend at least some of their time in palm oil plantations or near human habitation, which leads to conflict with people. In recent years, much of the elephants’ habitat has been converted to tree plantations that produce palm oil, the leading export crop for Malaysia. Each elephant belongs to a herd of 30-50 elephants but often splits off into smaller groups for days or weeks at a time. The home ranges of Nancy and Taliwas, who were collared in nearby forests, overlap, suggesting that the two elephant groups be related. Since elephants live in matriarchal societies, WWF collared only adult female elephants so that each elephant collared represents a whole herd’s movements.
- The elephants’ diet consists of at least 162 species of plants (in 49 families), including several dipterocarp tree species. This was determined during field tracking that supplements the satellite tracking. It was proved that forest quality influences the diversity and distribution of elephant food in the forest, with encroachment into palm oil plantations being higher along the degraded forest-plantation areas.
Elephants, pygmy or huge, are keystone species in their ecosystems. They are habitat engineers who shape the forest or savannah, impacting all other species who share it, including humans. Let us hope those same humans have the will and desire to save these gentle giants.