• Caroline Pang

The World's Smallest Elephant

Updated: Dec 19, 2021

Borneo, the third-largest island in the world is 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 Elephant 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 of 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 agricultural 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 causes 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.

With technology and satellite advancement, Non-Governmental Organisations such as WWF and HUTAN have fixed radio collars on some of the elephants of each herd to study their movements. Such data will help researchers to identify bottlenecks 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.

My role is to assist the landowner with fundraising and marketing. I conduct 4 days to 7 days nature photography workshops onsite. Proceeds from the workshop go to the project. This workshop is one of RASIG’s outreach programmes to travellers and photography enthusiasts in the region and globally to support the conservation of Borneo Pygmy Elephants through photography.

Another partner in this project is Sukau Rainforest Lodge operated by Borneo Eco Tours, which is one of Sabah's first tour operators to adopt the principle of responsible travel. The lodge is also one of National Geographic's former unique lodges.

Participants in our conservation travel and photography programmes are offered exclusivity to explore the project site with the landowner. This educational activity will give visitors an insight into a local community perspective on the importance of conserving their natural heritage.

The nearest airport and entry point to the Lower Kinabatangan is Sandakan, on 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 situated here, which is the overnight base for all our visitors.

Contact me if you would like to know more about the RASIG project and arrangements for conservation travel and photography to the Lower Kinabatangan floodplain.

Note that these programmes are possible if only travel is back to normal post-COVID-19.

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