The Danau Girang Field Centre, together with Sabah Wildlife Department and other partners, is drafting a 10-year action plan to protect Borneo pygmy elephants. PIC COURTESY OF DANAU GIRANG FIELD CENTRE

 KOTA KINABALU: A BETTER understanding of the origins of the Borneo pygmy elephants in Sabah is vital for their survival.

Danau Girang Field Centre researcher Benoit Goossens said understanding the pygmy elephants’ origins and past demography would be useful for the development of a long-term conservation strategy.

He said the centre, together with the Sabah Wildlife Department and other partners, was drafting a 10-year action plan to protect the elephants.

He said there were fewer than 2,000 pygmy elephants living in an increasingly fragmented environment. With regular news of poisoned or dead Bornean elephants, the future is grim for the endangered species.

A recent study by a joint research team, published in Scientific Reports, revealed that the elephants may have arrived on Borneo island at a time of the last land bridge between the Sunda Islands in Southeast Asia.

The research team was led by Lounes Chikhi from Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciencia (IGC, Portugal) and CNRS, Université Paul Sabatier (France), Cardiff University (Wales), Sabah Wildlife Department and Goossens.

“Until recently, there are two opposing theories on the origin of Bornean elephants: they could have been introduced by humans, maybe 300 years ago, or they could have diverged from Asian elephants a long time ago.

“There are records that in the 17th century, neighbouring sultans offered elephants as gifts to the Bornean sultans. On the other hand, about 15 years ago, a genetic study showed that the Bornean elephant’s DNA was very different from that of Asian elephants,” said Chikhi.

The team used genetic data analysis and computational modelling to study the demographic history of these animals.

“It is very difficult to track ancient demographic history of animals, even more when there are no fossil records to guide our work. What we did was to create computational models for different scenarios.

“Then we compared the results from these models with existing genetic data, and used statistical techniques to identify the scenario that best explained the current genetic diversity of the elephant population in Borneo.”

The results suggested that the most likely scenario to have occurred was a natural colonisation of Borneo around 11,400 to 18,300 years ago.

The period corresponded to a time when the sea levels were very low and elephants could migrate between the Sunda Islands.

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