Tuesday, 5 February 2013

"Pygmy elephants" poisoned

There has been a lot of talk in the news media about "pygmy elephants" being poisoned in Borneo. Numerous friends and relations contacted me in a state of some urgency, some quite late at night to tell me about this.

While ten elephants in Borneo have undoubtedly died from poisioning, even the World Wildlife Fund, which seems to be on the side of the sustainable wildlife tourism industry in the bit of Malaysia that's on the island of Borneo, admitted some time ago on its website that the "pygmy elephants" of Borneo were only six inches (15cm) shorter than the average height of Asian elephants on the mainland and among the nearest populations on islands. The Sumatran elephant, for example, is recognised as a sub-species that's one of the smallest in Asia, but it's about the same size as the Borneo elephant and no one is claiming the Sumatran elephant is a pygmy. It starts at around 6ft 6 inches in height at the shoulder for a fully-grown adult

I came across a comparison chart on a World Wildlife Fund site a few years ago (I can't seem to find it online now but someone has reproduced it here). As you can see, the Borneo elephants aren't much smaller than mainland Asian elephants.

One of the foremost experts on fossil elephants and mammoths, who's also very good on living elephants, told me he'd been to Sabah (Malaysian Borneo) and pointed a laser rangefinder at at least one of the elephants there. He told me he couldn't determine any difference in height between them and other Asian elephants, based on the data from the rangefinder. You'll have to see the forthcoming Pygmy Elephants book to find out which expert this was. I can reveal that he went on record for the first time about this when he talked to me and later corresponded with me on the subject.

The problem is that "pygmy" and "dwarf" have never been properly defined.

The Guardian said that the Borneo elephant was recognised as a sub-species in 2003. While it was recognised as a unique and genetically distinct population at that time, isolated from other populations for a very long time (around 300,000 years) as far as I am aware the sub-species designation Elephas maximus borneensis is still unofficial.

Looking at some of the recent photos of the poisoned and dead Borneo elephants, you can see their characteristic big heads. Some of the photos also show some Malaysians standing next to a corpse.

I don't know what the average height is for people from Sabah, but even assuming they're only five feet in height, that would make the dead adult elephant they're standing next to at least six or seven foot at the shoulder. The photo I found of the "dead adult elephant" being measured shows a different elephant to the - bigger - dead mother elephant, and seems to show a smaller individual, which may not be fully grown. Female Asian elephants - in India at least - start to have babies before they've finished growing, and they're still growing until around the age of 30.

My mum asked me what the survival chances were of the pitiful looking baby elephant next to the dead body of its mother. That depends largely on the availability of coconuts on Sabah. Elephant vet Dr Joseph Cheeran told me that very young elephants found lost and alone in the forest have a better chance of survival in the more tropical South India than in the north. That's because coconuts are readily available for free, and coconut milk closely mimics "fatty" elephant milk. I don't know if they have any tradition of hand-rearing baby elephants in Sabah, though. The elephants there are regarded as "wild" and never domesticated as far as I'm aware - confusing press reports on alleged illegal sales of Borneo elephants to zoos in China notwithstanding.

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