Origins still a jumbo question

  • Nation
  • Thursday, 18 Jan 2018

Looking into the past: Goossens, co-leader of the study of Borneo elephants, during the collaring of Gading in the Kinabatangan.

KOTA KINABALU: A scientific study is shedding new light on how Borneo got its elephants.

The mysterious origin of the Bornean pygmy elephant – a subspecies of the Asian elephant which only exists in a small region – has long been debated.

In a study published in Scientific Reports, scientists are more inclined to believe the elephants might have arrived in Borneo during the time of the last land bridge between the Sunda Islands in South-East Asia.

The research team was led by Lounes Chikhi from Instituto Gulbenkian de Cincia (IGC, Portugal) and French National Centre for Scientific Research, Paul Sabatier University (France), Benoit Goossens, from Danau Girang Field Centre (Malaysia), Cardiff University (Wales) and the Sabah Wildlife Department.

The scientist, in a media release, noted that the pygmy elephants may have been brought in as gifts some 300 years ago for Borneo sultans and were non-natives of Borneo.

But others concluded that Bornean elephants are very different from other Asian elephants and suggested a very ancient separation, perhaps about 300,000 years ago.

However, no elephant fossils have been discovered in Borneo, although fossils from other large mammals such as orang utan have been found, the scientist noted.

To shed light on the mysterious origin, Chikhi and Goossens’ 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 the work.

“What we did was to create computational models for different scenarios that might have happened. Then, we compared the results from these models with the existing genetic data, and used statistical techniques to identify the scenario that best explains the current genetic diversity of the elephant population in Borneo,” said Chikhi.

According to researcher Reeta Sharma, the most likely scenario is natural colonisation of Borneo around 11,400 to 18,300 years ago as human introduction seems improbable.

This period corresponds to a time when the sea level was very low and elephants could migrate from the Sunda Islands, a south-eastern Asia archipelago to which Borneo belongs, said Sharma, a researcher at the IGC and first co-author of the paper.

With fewer than 2,000 elephants left in the wild, Goossens said the study would be useful for the development of a long-term conservation strategy, as part of the 10-year State Action Plan for the Bornean elephant.

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