KOTA KINABALU: Borneo elephants, a distinct subspecies of Asian elephants, are now classified as endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.

Primarily found in Sabah, the elephant, also known as the pygmy elephant, also has a small population in Indonesia’s Kalimantan.

In total, there are estimated to be just 1,000 left, including 400 breeding adults.

This species is genetically unique, having separated from other elephant populations tens to hundreds of thousands of years ago.

They are smaller and have distinct skull shapes compared to mainland elephants.

In an article in the IUCN website, its Asian Elephant Specialist Group (AsESG) has facilitated the Bornean elephant’s inclusion in the Red List, emphasising the need for its conservation.

Pygmy elephants’ peaceful nature has earned them the nickname “gentle giant”, and they have unfortunately lost about 60% of their forest habitat in the last 40 years, primarily due to logging and the planting of commercial oil palm.

The IUCN’s classification therefore highlights the urgency for conservation efforts to protect these genetically unique elephants.

The Red List informs conservation strategies by highlighting extinction risks at various levels, crucial for implementing the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework.

“As countries gear up to meet their commitments under the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, detailed local assessments, such as the Borneo population of Asian elephants, contribute valuable case studies to learn from and replicate,” said IUCN Species Survival Commission chairman, Prof Jon Paul Rodrigues.

Asian elephants, one of three elephant species alive today, have been endangered since 1986, with about 40,000 animals across 13 southern Asian countries. The other two species are African Savanna and forest elephants.

In Borneo, these elephants play a keystone role, where they co-exist with numerous other endangered species unique to the religion.

Prof Adrian Lister from London’s Natural History Museum and other experts recognise the subspecies as an Evolutionary Significant Unit, vital for maintaining global biodiversity.

Meanwhile, WWF-Malaysia Elephant Conservation manager Dr Cheryl Cheah stressed the need for collaborative conservation efforts, such as managing human-elephant conflicts and preventing habitat loss.

The Red List assessment, conducted by an international team including experts from India, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, the UK, and Indonesia, underscores the urgency of establishing wildlife corridors through oil palm plantations to connect forest patches, enabling elephants to roam freely and preserve genetic diversity.

Both the Malaysian and Indonesian governments have conservation plans for Borneo’s elephants, but challenges remain.

The IUCN Red List’s recognition provides strong impetus for their conservation, emphasising habitat protection, community support, and anti-poaching measures to secure the future of these unique elephants.

An urgent need is the establishment of wildlife corridors through the vast oil palm plantations, joining the forested patches and allowing the elephants to roam more widely, access more food, and mingle to preserve their genetic diversity.

To secure the future of these unique animals, it is essential to protect and expand their forest habitats, support local communities in minimising conflict with elephants, and enforce anti-poaching measures.