Beasts & burden

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Nestled in the lowland tropical forests of Borneo, a large island among the scattered archipelagos of the South China Sea, lives a peculiar pachyderm.

These elephants have large ears and long tails. They're far less aggressive than their cousins in Africa and the Asian mainland. They rarely grow taller than eight feet, which, in the elephant world, makes them small.

Most importantly, DNA research published several years ago by the World Wildlife Federation showed the Borneo pygmy elephant to be a genetically unique subspecies that became distinct about 300,000 years ago.

No more than 1,500 of the animals remain.

One researcher studying them is Cardiff University scientist Benoit Goossens, who will present findings next Thursday during a reception hosted by the Friends of the Columbus Zoo at the Safari Golf Club in Powell.

Each year, through an extensive conservation grants program, the zoo supports about 70 projects in 30 countries. Its global financial support helped Goossens and a field team discover more about the species.

"They are fascinating by many aspects," Goossens said in a recent e-mail interview. "I think that the Bornean elephant is unique and deserves general interest from the conservation community."

Working on the island that comprises Brunei and parts of Malaysia and Indonesia, he drove more than 19,000 miles on logging roads and dove into 400 piles of dung during a three-year study. Before long, he was fascinated by the elephants' relatively small stature, capacity for adaptation, gentle manners and rather mysterious origin.

One hypothesis is that centuries ago an elephant group native to Java, now part of Indonesia, was gifted to the sultan of Sulu, a Philippine island chain. As the Javan elephants died out, captive descendents more than 1,000 miles away thrived and were shipped to Borneo - a rare case of survival by domestication.

Others claim the species has lived on Borneo since land bridges to the Asian continent disappeared during the Pleistocene era.

Whatever the case, Goossens' study comes at a crucial time for the gentle giants.

"Deforestation and palm oil plantations are probably the biggest threats to the Bornean elephants today," said Goossens, who previously studied orangutans in Sumatra, giant pandas in China and black rhinos in Africa. "Other factors ... could be human-elephant conflicts and fragmentation of the habitat."

The Columbus Zoo has handed out $3.8 million in grants worldwide during the past five years, said field conservation director Rebecca Rose. There's a special urgency for the many species on Borneo.

"We started in this area more than 10 years ago with an orangutan project," she added. "This part of Borneo has a lot of biodiversity. They have a lot worth saving there."

Using satellite tracking and behavioral observations, Goossens and fellow researchers hope to develop a strategic plan to properly manage the endangered elephants.

Species Spotlight

Borneo pygmy elephant

A smaller, more docile cousin of elephants on the Asian mainland with babyish faces, large ears and long tail

Population: Fewer than 1,500

Range: Parts of Malaysia and Indonesia in the northeastern corner of Borneo

Habitat: Contiguous tropical and subtropical forests along the floodplain, tributaries and upper realms of the Kinabatangan River

Threats: Logging, deforestation, human conflict on palm-oil plantations

Source: World Wildlife Federation

Befriending the Zoo

The presentation on the Borneo pygmy elephants is sponsored by the Friends of the Columbus Zoo, a group of young professionals and animal advocates who support conservation through volunteer work, fundraising and community outreach. In addition to giving members an insider's look at zoo operations, the group hosts numerous social events, such as Sunset Safari at The Wilds and Brew at the Zoo.

What: Borneo Pygmy Elephants Presentation

When: 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 29

Where: Safari Golf Club, Powell