26 January 2014
Pygmy elephants in Borneo
Word had circulated among boat drivers that elephants could be seen not far off from the shore, somewhere close to a makeshift pontoon of the Kinabatangan river, in eastern Borneo. We – the dozen of us on that elongated canoe-style motorised boat – accosted, walked a bit on a trail and, fair enough, a horde of elephants were calmly eating leaves in the distance.
An atmosphere of adventure could be felt in the air. Here we were, tourists, a guide and a boat driver, all on foot, sixty metres away from the elephants. Everyone knew we had to keep our distance, especially as one of the mother elephants was clearly staring at us, positioning herself towards us as if ready to charge. But still, it was very tempting to always inch closer, closer to those baby elephants playing with mud, throwing it in the air onto their backs, oblivious to the potential human threat.
They were so-called pygmy elephants – but that didn’t actually mean they were small. In fact, the adult ones are similar in height to their counterparts in southeast Asia. It is believed that they were introduced by the Sultan of Sulu in the eighteenth century, initially held captive and then released into the jungle – which may explain why they are considered to be remarkably passive. It also makes them genetically distinct from other elephant species.
There are however only about two thousand elephants left in the Sabah province of Borneo, perhaps less than there are kingfishers – deforestation on behalf of palm tree plantations surely not helping – thus making them one of the highest priority populations for Asian elephant conservation.
Speaking of elephants, and considering my usual attempt to end my posts with a punchline, let me share a riddle with you (I would sometimes entertain conference audiences with such riddles). But before that, did you know that the elephant jokes date back to the early 1960s in the US? They are often constructed in a sequence of one another, ending up with incongruous and absurd but logical answers. Here goes: how do you know a (pygmy) elephant is under your blanket? Come on, take a guess before I give you the answer. Stop reading! Close your eyes! Okay then. Here’s the answer: because when you get in your bed your nose touches the ceiling. Ha. Haha. Sorry.
Teaser: in my next post, we’ll be heading once more to Bali to discover another one of the seven sea temples, a temple invaded by aggressive monkeys. Had you checked out the pictures I had previously shared of Tanah Lot and the delightful sunset light that shrouded the temple and illuminated the sea http://goo.gl/63NjBL ?