Elephants in Borneo.

The elephant is associated in our minds with the vast empty spaces of Africa or the Indian forests. However elephants have been an integral part of the fauna in many other parts of the world as well. There are large numbers in Sri Lanka, and they have been an integral part of Thai culture too from time immemorial. There are elephants in the Malay Peninsula as well, though the numbers have been dwindling and may soon become too few for a viable population. Elephants also exist in the Indonesian island of Sumatra. A small population also exists in Borneo in the extreme north eastern part of the island. All the fossil and historical evidence suggests that this has been the historical range of the elephant in Borneo; they have never ranged over the rest of the island.
Scientists have always debated about the origin of these elephants. Were they indigenous to Borneo or were they feral elephants that had escaped from groups brought to these islands during the heyday of elephant trading in this area in the sixteenth century? (Feral Animals are those that have escaped from domestication and have formed a free living wild population.)If they were indigenous, they would have to have migrated here at least 18000 years ago when the whole of the South East Asian landmass was one during the Pleistocene ice age as the sea levels were much lower then.
Naturalists originally classified these elephants as a separate subspecies, but later they were added to the subgroup of Indian or Sumatran elephants. The debate was inconclusive as no one could prove anything much one way or another. However with the advent of DNA typing, the possibility of an end to this debate was at hand. It was done by a team of researchers from India, Malaysia and the USA. What they did was to compare the DNA of elephants from Borneo with those from all other Asiatic elephant types. They suggested that if they were similar to any of these types it would prove that they originated from these elephants and had been transported to Borneo by elephant traders.
Dung was collected from wild elephants and blood samples from captive ones and these were analysed. These proved conclusively that the Borneo elephant was distinct from the other varieties of elephant and suggested that they had been evolving separately since the last ice age when they walked across the frozen seas to Borneo. Later the rising sea levels cut them off from their brothers in the Asian mainland and left them to be a distinct group comparable to the Sumatran or Sri Lankan elephant.
Such are the wonders of science! I find it fascinating to realize that many techniques which could not have been dreamt of only a generation ago are now answering questions that would otherwise have been unresolved forever. The proof given is so elegant and satisfying that there is an underlying harmony in it. The satisfaction I feel from this solution is akin to what I might feel when I read a good poem or hear a sublime piece of music. Science can also be an art form!


ina@farina said…
It seems that you are very interested with the Bornean elephant. Have you seen one in the wild?
akdcts said…
i am afraid i have not. I wish i could, However i come from North Bengal which is home to some of the largest herds in India.
Hmmm you could visit Borneo now that you stay in Malaysia

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