The World's Smallest Elephant
Borneo is the third largest island in the world, inhabited by the world's smallest elephant, Elephas Maximus Borneensis, also known as the Borneo Pygmy Elephant.
This endangered species is also the largest mammal on the island. The biggest population is concentrated in the northeastern part of Sabah (Malaysian Borneo), particularly at the lower Kinabatangan floodplain. There are about 300 individuals in the floodplain. A small population inhabits the north of Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo). The overall population in Borneo is estimated to be around 1500 individuals.
WWF studies have revealed that these elephants have been on the island of Borneo for over 300,000 years. They are genetically different and smaller than the other mainland Asian species.
An adult Borneo Pygmy Elephants is 2 meters to 3 meters tall, weighing between 3,000 kg to 5,000 kg. They have long tails, shorter tusks (only adult male has tusk), shorter trunks, rounder body shape with smaller ears and mild temperament.
Gestation is up to 22 months, just like any other elephant species. Females would usually stay with their mothers into adulthood while male elephants would be independent and curiously roaming away to join another herd by the time they are 5 years old.
One adult Borneo Pygmy Elephant can eat up to 150 kg vegetation per day. They feed mostly on grass, wild bananas and even young shoots of palm trees. They also require supplementary minerals which they get from salt licks or mineral concentrations in limestone outcrops.
Each herd usually travels in small groups of around 8 to 10 individuals. The herd is headed by a matriarch. Adult elephants are very protective of their young ones.
Along the lower Kinabatangan river in Malaysian Borneo, a herd like this can be seen gathering in open feeding grounds, particularly on river banks, to graze and to swim.
Their existence in Borneo is under threat due to the massive conversion of their habitat to agriculture land especially for oil palm cultivation. Elephants are intelligent mammals and are known to travel for life on the same migration route as their ancestors. When agricultural lands barricade their migration route, it cause major human and elephant conflict. Therefore maintaining as much forested habitat as possible with sufficient food source are detrimental to the survival of these large mammals.
Non-governmental organisations such as WWF and HUTAN are working closely with government agencies and other major stakeholders to improve the conservation of the Borneo Pygmy Elephant and other endangered species in Borneo. With technology and satellite advancement, radio collars are fixed on some of the elephants of each herd to study their movements. Such data will help researchers to identify bottle neck and conflict areas.
One local villager from the village of Sukau along the lower Kinabatangan river took a pragmatic approach to conserve the elephant migration route on his land. He could have made a large profit by leasing the land to any agricultural companies, instead he chose to keep it untouched. His land of 5.6 acres is part of an important wildlife corridor especially for large mammals like the Borneo Pygmy Elephant. The local community project is known as RASIG.
I was approached by the land owner to assist with fundraising and marketing. I conduct a 4 days to 7 days photography workshop on site for photography enthusiasts who are interested in travel and conservation photography. Proceeds from the workshop goes to project. This workshop is also part of RASIG’s outreach programme to travellers in the region and globally.
Another partner in this project is Sukau Rainforest Lodge operated by Borneo Eco Tours, which is one of Sabah's first tour operator to adapt the principle of responsible travel. The lodge is also one of National Geographic unique lodges. Visiting the project site with the land owner and to listen to his wildlife conservation passion are part of an educational programme offered exclusive by Borneo Eco Tours to the guests of Sukau Rainforest Lodge.
This is one way travellers and photographers can support the conservation of Borneo Pygmy Elephants and endangered species in the area.
The nearest airport and entry point to the lower Kinabatangan is Sandakan, in the east coast of Sabah (Malaysian Borneo). There are daily flights from Kota Kinabalu (the state capital of Sabah) and Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia’s capital). The flight duration from Kota Kinabalu to Sandakan is about 45 minutes. The flight from Kuala Lumpur to Sandakan is 2.5 hours. Flights are operated by Malaysia Airlines (the national carrier) and Air Asia (a budget airline). From Sandakan, the drive to Sukau is 2 hours. Sukau is one of the five villages along the Kinabatangan river. Sukau Rainforest Lodge is situtated here, which is the overnight base for all our visitors.
Note: This route is possible if only travel is back to normal at post COVID-19.