The Borneo pygmy elephant (or Bornean elephant) is one of four sub-species of the Asian Elephant. If you are visiting Borneo for wildlife watching this amazing animal is likely to be high on your wish list of things to see. And for good reason. Encountering a herd of elephants is an unforgettable experience and will be a highlight of your trip.
This article is divided into two parts. The first provides facts and general information about Borneo’s elephants. The second part lists the best places to see pygmy elephants in Malaysian Borneo.
Borneo Pygmy Elephant – Facts, Photos & Video
Where is the Pygmy Elephant Found?
The pygmy elephant has a limited distribution and is only found on the island of Borneo in Southeast Asia. The population is further limited to the northeast of Borneo. Pygmy elephants live in a several locations in Sabah with the largest populations found in the central forest of Sabah and the Kinabatangan flood plain. A small number live in Indonesian Kalimantan.
Pygmy elephant range in Borneo. The solid lines on the map show country borders while the dotted line indicates the boundary between the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak. Black dots indicate the areas where DNA samples were collected for a 2003 study. Source: PLOS Biology.
There are an estimated 2,040 pygmy elephants left in the wild with over 95% of them found in the Malaysian State of Sabah. According to WWF Indonesia, the distribution of pygmy elephants in Indonesia is limited to the Tulin Onsoi sub-district, Nunukan, North Kalimantan. The population is estimated to be between 20-80 individuals, with its habitat under threat from loggers and plantations.
Elephas maximus borneensis.
Appearance, Size & Weight
Borneo pygmy elephants are dark grey in colour. They are the smallest of the Asian elephants. Adult males range from 1.6 to 3.6 metres with an average of around 2.2 metres. Females are smaller at 1.5-2.3 metres with an average height of around 2 m. Pygmy elephants are around 25% smaller than other Asian elephants.
They are more rotund with a smaller, rounder face and over-sized ears. Pygmy elephants also have longer tails and straighter tusks than other Asian elephants. Elephant calves often grab their mother’s tail when climbing up muddy river banks. Not all males have tusks. Adult pygmy elephants weigh 2,000-2,500 kilograms. The smallest elephant in the world is the largest mammal in Borneo.
Pygmy elephants are generally found in lowland rainforests and river valleys. Family groups generally stick to flat land so that calves can easily move around. In contrast, solitary adult males are known to travel through hill forest. Degraded forests are an important habitat for Borneo’s elephants. Protecting these disturbed forests (instead of converting them to agricultural land) will be an important conservation strategy to ensure the future survival of pygmy elephants.
These animals need large areas of forest to roam freely and find enough food. Pygmy elephants feed on grasses, bamboo, palms and fruits. They consume over 150 different types of plants and are important seed dispersers. Adults can eat up to 150 kg of food each day. Like other mammals in Borneo they get necessary minerals from salt licks.
Behaviour & Social Structure
Pygmy elephants are thought to be less aggressive than other Asian elephants. Yet they can be hostile and aggressive. They will destroy traps or barriers placed in their migration routes. They may look cute but they can get aggressive if humans get too close. Pygmy elephants live in family herds of 6-20 led by a female matriarch. The family group consists of the matriarch, her daughters, their calves and immature males. Sometimes males are attached or associated with herds.
Groups often merge or gather together at river banks forming large groups of 30-50 elephants. Such groups are sometimes observed on the banks of the Kinabatangan River. Pygmy elephants are good swimmers and regularly cross rivers in their home range. Young males leave their family group when they reach sexual maturity. They then roam the forest alone or travel in loose bachelor groups of two or three. Periodically the males will follow herds for mating.
60 years in the wild.
Females have around seven calves in their lifetime. The gestation period is between 19-22 months. Mothers gift birth to one calf at a time with births taking place every 4-6 years. Calves feed on their mother’s milk for 3-4 years. Sexual maturity is reached around 10-12 years of age.
Pygmy elephants don’t have any natural predators. (There are no tigers in Borneo. Tigers do occasionally prey on the calves of other Asian elephants). Sadly, in recent years there have been more cases of humans killing the elephants.
Listed as Endangered on the IUCN red list of threatened species.
The biggest threat to pygmy elephants is habitat loss and fragmentation. While many areas of Sabah are protected as national parks and forest reserves, logging and deforestation for oil palm plantations continue to reduce elephant habitat. Development and land clearing activities also disrupt elephant migration routes. With pygmy elephants living in increasingly fragmented habitats, human-elephant conflict is increasing.
In recent years there have been a number of cases of elephants being shot and killed by landowners. Elephants can also get caught in illegal snares set for smaller wildlife. Illegal killing and poaching are becoming a problem. In 2013 14 elephants were poisoned in a 5-week period in Sabah. In 2016 several elephants were killed for the tusks. 2018 was another bad year for elephant poaching in Sabah. 2019 was even worse with some shocking cases, including an elephant found with 70 gunshot wounds.
Logging, development and palm oil plantations also reduce the forest available for each elephant sub-population. Contact between sub-populations is reduced as the forest shrinks. Reduced migration and interaction between populations can lead to inbreeding and lower genetic diversity.
Elephants and Oil Palm Estates – Can They Co-exist?
With the continued expansion of oil palm in Sabah and shrinking natural forests, it is not surprising that elephants are often seen in oil palm estates. Oil palm is being planted next to elephant habitat in many places in Sabah, e.g. Kinabatangan, Tabin, Tongod, etc. As such, the forest where elephants live is often surrounded by oil palm. It is not possible to restrict the movement of elephants. They will go where they want to.
Incursion into plantation land by elephants may be related to a matriarch’s memory of food sources. A herd of elephants can cause serious damage to young palms trees. Several hectares can be destroyed in a single night. However, when the oil palm trees are 2-metres high and start to fruit at around 6-7 years the trees are safe from elephants.
In their Field Guide to the Mammals of Borneo, Phillipps & Phillipps (2018) argue that elephants and mature oil palm can co-exist if young palms are protected by electric fencing. When mature oil palm bunches are harvested the leaves surrounding the bunches are cut and left on the ground. Elephants eat these leaves without damage to the mature palm trees. In theory, the layout of plantations can be designed with elephants in mind, allowing them to pass through areas of mature palms while fencing off areas of young palms.
There has been much debate about the origins of elephants in Borneo. Until recently there were two theories. The first states that elephants were introduced to Borneo by the Sultan of Sulu in the 17th Century. A lack of elephant fossils found in Borneo supports this theory.
The second suggests that elephants are native to Borneo and not descended from animals introduced by humans. DNA analysis and a 2003 study found that pygmy elephants were genetically distinct from other Asian elephants. This research suggests that pygmy elephants were isolated from Mainland and Sumatran Asian elephants some 300,000 years ago.
A third theory has recently put forward by researchers based on a study of genetic data. This suggests that the Bornean elephant colonized Borneo between 11,000-18,000 years ago when the major islands of Sundaland (Borneo, Java and Sumatra) were connected by land bridges. So does that close the debate? Probably not but it is safe to say that the elephants are indigenous to Borneo and they have been there for some time.
Research & Further Information
A number of organizations conduct research and are doing great work to protect these elephants. These include universities, NGOs and government agencies. Examples include Sabah Wildlife Department, University Malaysia Sabah, HUTAN, Cardiff University, Danau Girang Field Centre, WWF Malaysia and WWF Indonesia.
WWF Malaysia conducted the first major research into this species in 2005 when they attached satellite collars to five elephants from different herds in Sabah. Today both foreign and local researchers are working in elephant conservation. One of the leading Malaysian experts is Dr Nurzhafarina Othman. You can find out more about her research work here.
This video was filmed at the Kinabatangan River in Sabah and includes close-up footage of pygmy elephants feeding in the forest and along the river bank. The final minute of the video shows elephants swimming and playing in the river.
Where to See Pygmy Elephants in Borneo
The best places to see pygmy elephants in Borneo are:
- Kinabatangan River
- Danum Valley
- Tabin Wildlife Reserve
- Deramakot Forest Reserve
The Kinabatangan River is one of the best places to see pygmy elephants. It is also a great place to see orangutans and proboscis monkeys. The river is usually accessed via the town of Sandakan. A range of accommodation and Kinabatangan tours are available as this region is one of Malaysia’s best wildlife-watching destinations. Most of the lodges and homestays are located near Sukau. A more limited range of accommodation is found at Abai, a village located closer to Sandakan.
To stand a good chance of seeing elephants on the Kinabatangan River you will need to stay a few nights. You can increase your chance of seeing elephants by staying at different locations, thus covering a wider area of the river. For example, spending time at both Sukau and Abai as this 4 day, 3 night tour does. Large herds of elephants are sometimes seen along the banks of the Kinabatangan River. If you are lucky you may see a herd swim across the river.
A mother helps her calf up a muddy river bank near Abai village, Kinabatangan River, Sabah.
Danum Valley offers pygmy elephants a sanctuary free of the human-elephant conflicts that are now common in other places in Sabah where they roam. Danum is one of Sabah’s most important protected areas with its 43,800 hectares of pristine rainforest providing a sanctuary for a variety of wildlife. Elephants are often spotted along the access roads to Danum Valley.
Borneo Adventure offers 3-day and 4-day tours to Danum Valley with accommodation at Borneo Rainforest Lodge. We also have trips with accommodation at the Danum Valley Field Centre. Elephants can also be sighted at the Kawag Forest Area, on the fringes of Danum Valley.
Tabin Wildlife Reserve
The lowland forests of Tabin Wildlife Reserve are another good place to see elephants. This vast reserve of 122,500 hectares is a mix of secondary and primary forest and is surrounding by oil palm plantations. As with Danum, the access roads and tracks provide decent opportunities to see pygmy elephants.
Day and night time four-wheel drive safaris allow visitors to explore Tabin and go in search of elephants and other wildlife. Elephants are also occasionally seen at mud volcanoes at Tabin.
Deramakot Forest Reserve
Deramakot Forest Reserve is one of Sabah’s top wildlife-watching destinations. 75% of Sabah’s mammal species are found here including pygmy elephants. Deramakot is a logging area, albeit the longest Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified tropical forest in the world. This forest reserve is accessed from Sandakan or Telupid via gravel tracks and logging roads. It is on these roads that you have a reasonable chance of seeing elephants.
Wildlife watching at Deramakot is done in 4WD vehicles. Both day and night drives are possible. Borneo Adventure offers 3 day / 2 night and 4 day / 3 night tours of Deramakot plus longer tailor made trips.