Borneo Pygmy Elephant

Borneo's pygmy elephants have sparked debate over whether they should be classed as a separate sub-species. If action is not taken to conserve the forest on which this small population depends, Borneo will lose its elephants and such arguments will become redundant.
 / ©: WWF-International
© WWF-International
Herd of Bornean Pygmy elephants (Elephas maximus borneensis) crossing a road.

Key Facts

  • Common Names

    Borneo pygmy elephant, Borneo elephant

  • Scientific Name

    Elephas maximus or sometimes Elephas maximus borneensis

  • Geographic Location

    Sabah, Borneo

  • Population

    Approximately 1,500


Until recently the pygmy elephants of Borneo were believed to be a remnant population of a domesticated herd abandoned on the island by the Sultan of Sulu in the 17th century. But a 2003 DNA analysis carried out by WWF and Columbia University found that the pygmy elephants were genetically distinct from other Asian elephants, thereby recognizing it as a likely new subspecies and emphasizing its conservation priority.

According to the DNA evidence these elephants were isolated about 300,000 years ago from their cousins on mainland Asia and Sumatra. During that period, they became smaller with relatively larger ears, longer tails and straighter tusks.

The evolutionary history of Borneo's elephants justifies their recognition as a separate evolutionary significant unit (ESU).

Physical Description

Borneo pygmy elephants are smaller than other Asian elephants. The males may only grow to less than 2.5 meters, while other Asian elephants grow up to 3 meters. They also have babyish faces, larger ears, longer tails that reach almost to the ground and are more rotund. These elephants are also less aggressive than other Asian elephants.


The Asian elephant is one of the largest forest herbivores in the world. A single adult can eat up to 150 kgs of vegetation everyday, feeding mostly on species of palms, grasses and wild bananas. They also require minerals which they receive from salt licks or mineral concentrations in limestone outcrops.


The primary threat to these elephants is the loss of continuous forests. Mammals of their size require large feeding grounds and viable breeding populations with sizeable male- to female ratios. Shrinking forests have also brought the elephants into more frequent contact with people, increasing human elephant conflict in the region.

The large blocks of forests they require are fragmented by encroachment in forest areas and conversion of natural forests to commercial plantations. Human disturbances within forests such as logging, increased agriculture, building of palm oil mills with associated settlements and hunting are rapidly breaking up contact between sub populations, as well as minimizing the areas of forests available for each small group to live and feed on. These issues are common to all sub-species of Asian elephants.
Major Habitat Type
Concentrated in Sabah, particularly the floodplain, tributaries and the upper catchment of the Kinabatangan River - but their route has been cut off by illegal loggers and the elephants have not been there in years. They occasionally range into East Kalimantan, Indonesia.

Biogeographic Realm
Indo- Malaya

Range States
Malaysia, Indonesia

Geographical Location
Northeast Borneo

Did you know?

    • In 2005, WWF began studying the pygmy elephants by attaching satellite collars to five of them, making this the largest satellite tracking study of elephants ever conducted in Asia.


  •  The WWF Wildlife Crime Scorecard report selects 23 range, transit and consumer countries from Asia and Africa facing the highest levels of illegal trade in elephant ivory, rhino horn and tiger parts.

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