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Bornean Elephants

What is the scientific and common name of Bornean elephant?

The scientific name for Bornean elephants is Elephas maximus borneensis. In local language, we called them as Gajah, but they are also known by various names by tribes in Sabah. Some call the elephants by the nicknames “Nenek”, “Aki”, and “Liman” as a sign of respect for this megafauna. Nenek and Aki have the same meaning as Grandmother and Grandfather.

What is the origin of the Bornean Elephant?

Based on the recent study by Sharma et al. (2021), the best fitting scenario to describe how Bornean elephants can exist in Sabah or some other parts of Borneo involves an end-of-Pleistocene bottleneck between 11,000 - 18,000 years ago. Therefore, it is most likely that natural colonization happened in that period when the Sunda islands were all joined due to a very low sea level at the end of the Last Glacial Maximum.

How tall are Bornean elephants?

Males are between 1.57 m and 3.64 m tall, with an average of 2.17 m, and females are between 1.45 m and 2.26 m tall, with an average of 1.96 m.

What’s unique about Bornean elephant?

The Bornean elephant is considered an Evolutionary Significant Unit (ESU) which means they are genetically distinct. That’s why they are considered a subspecies of Asian elephant. Physically, they are also slightly different from the other Asian elephants. the Bornean elephant is known to have a smaller body size and. However, we are yet to prove scientifically. We will keep you posted. Their home ranges average 150-200 square-kilometre, although previous estimates have reported home range sizes of 250-400 square-kilometre in non-fragmented landscapes and up to 600 square-kilometre in disturbed, fragmented landscapes.

How do Bornean elephants communicate?

They use their body parts such as their trunk, vocals, and pad on their feet to communicate with other elephants.

What is their habitat?

They prefer low-lying areas with open areas to feed. However, today they are often found in "low-quality" habitats dominated by grasses and bushes. Despite their best efforts, Bornean elephants have been shown to thrive in degraded landscapes. However, the complete conversion of forests to agriculture has vastly elevated levels of human-elephant conflict.

Where can you find Bornean Elephants?

The Bornean elephant has a limited distribution and is found only in the northeastern part of the island, astride the international boundary between Malaysian Sabah and Indonesian Kalimantan.

Do the Bornean elephants migrate from place to place?

Elephants do not "migrate" in Sabah, but they travel great distances. They roam large areas, revisiting them regularly to sustain their ecological and food needs. Elephants have strong social relationships that govern their movements; yet, habitat fragmentation and human harassment can cause these bonds to be disrupted.

What do Bornean elephants eat?

Their diet consists mainly of monocotyledonous plants from Poaceae, Arecaceae, or Musaceae families. Still, they also consume bark, leaves, and other parts of trees and climbers, especially Euphorbiaceae. In addition, monocotyledonous plants (grasses) are vital for the elephants, as they regularly return to the same area to feed on regrowing grass. Monocotyledonous plants grow much faster than woody plants and provide a more regular and stable food source than other plants. Grasses are not common in mature forests, which explains why elephants use grasslands more. Also, the existing correlation between wild elephants and the availability of gray-colored kaolin smectite and illite clay (also known as 'mud volcano') are significant.

Major Threats

Habitat loss and fragmentation




Human-elephant conflicts (HEC) and retribution killing


Accidental deaths





How many Bornean elephants are left?

In 2010, it was estimated that there were about 2,040 elephants in Sabah roaming in five managed elephant ranges (MERs). The MERs are Tabin, Lower Kinabatangan, Central forest, North Kinabatangan, and Ulu Kalumpang range. However, this data is outdated, and a current population estimate is necessary for a comprehensive evaluation of the effectiveness of the BEAP 2020-2029.


Hence, in 2021, we started a new project, “Improving Population Size Estimation for Bornean Elephants in Kinabatangan,” to provide a current elephant population estimate for the Kinabatangan landscape. Our main activities are monitoring wild Bornean elephants' dung-decay and defecation rates, carrying out dung count-based surveys following CITES MIKE program standards, and using the resulting data on dung decay, dung production, and dung density to produce a reliable estimate of elephant population size.

What is their conservation status?

The Asian elephant is listed as ‘Endangered’ on the Red List of the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) 2018 and Appendix 1 of CITES (Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna).

How are Bornean elephants being protected in Sabah?

In Sabah, the species is totally protected under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife Conservation Enactment 1997, meaning that elephants cannot be hunted or shot under any circumstances. Killing an elephant or possessing elephant products (skull, skin, bones, tusks, etc.) is an offense under section 25 of the WCE 1997. The penalty is a minimum fine of RM50,000 and a maximum of RM250,000, plus imprisonment for no less than six months and up to five years

What is Human-Elephant Conflict?

Elephants are highly mobile and have a solid spatial memory that helps them efficiently access critical resources and avoid risk. HEC mainly occurs when the traditional routes used by elephants along “habitat corridors” that connect these critical areas or disjunct home ranges become converted to human-altered habitats. Thus elephant access to these core areas is denied. Elephants may also be attracted to highly edible crops, resulting in elephants repeatedly returning to agricultural areas.

What is the behavior of Bornean elephants?

Elephants are polygynous, and female matriarchs lead family units. Their social organization is sexually dimorphic, with males leaving the family unit when they become mature. Males rejoin female groups only when they are reproductively active. Usually, a family unit consists of several females and calves, ranging from 3 to 4 and up to 20 individuals. The social system is dominated by fission-fusion. As a result, it is possible to see large herds of more than 100 individuals together.


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  1. Goossens, B., Sharma, R., Othman, N., Kun-Rodrigues, C., Sakong, R., Ancrenaz, M., ... & Chikhi, L. (2016). Habitat fragmentation and genetic diversity in natural populations of the Bornean elephant: Implications for conservation. Biological Conservation, 196, 80-92.

  2. Evans, L. J., Goossens, B., Davies, A. B., Reynolds, G., & Asner, G. P. (2020). Natural and anthropogenic drivers of Bornean elephant movement strategies. Global Ecology and Conservation, 22, e00906.

  3. English, M., Gillespie, G., Ancrenaz, M., Ismail, S., Goossens, B., Nathan, S., & Linklater, W. (2014). Plant selection and avoidance by the Bornean elephant (Elephas maximus borneensis) in tropical forest: does plant recovery rate after herbivory influence food choices?. Journal of Tropical Ecology, 30(4), 371-379.

  4. Parks, S., & Sapulut, T. W. R. Bornean Elephant Action Plan for Sabah.

  5. Othman, N. (2017). Behaviour and spatial ecology of the Bornean elephant (Elephas maximus borneensis) in Lower Kinabatangan, Sabah, Malaysia Borneo (Doctoral dissertation, Cardiff University).

  6. Fernando, P., Vidya, T. C., Payne, J., Stuewe, M., Davison, G., Alfred, R. J., ... & Moritz, C. (2003). DNA analysis indicates that Asian elephants are native to Borneo and are therefore a high priority for conservation. PLoS biology, 1(1), e6.

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