The Borneo Elephant, the World's Smallest Elephant, Is Now Endangered

There are believed to be fewer than 1,500 of these elephants left in the world.

Lauren Wellbank - Author

Jun. 28 2024, Published 2:50 p.m. ET

Joe, the Borneo elephant standing in a cage
Source: Getty Images

Celebrations over a newly classified elephant subspecies were cut short in June 2024, when concerns were raised over the number of Bornean elephants — also known as the Borneo pygmy elephant — left living in the world. The elephants are native to the island of Borneo, where their population has continued to dwindle over the years.

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Despite recently getting their confirmation as a subspecies of the Asian elephant, not much is known about smallest of the elephant species. Continue reading to learn more, including whether the Borneo elephant is endangered or not.

Joe, the Borneo elephant getting pet on the trunk
Source: Getty Images
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Is the Bornean elephant endangered?

Sadly, the Bornean elephant has been placed on the endangered species list, according to the Natural History Museum. The elephant is currently on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) Red List, which experts hope will help bring more awareness and conservation efforts to the Bornean elephant's plight.

Bornean elephants are unique in the elephant world. With tails that can sometimes reach down to the ground, straighter tusks, and large ears, the Bornean elephant would definitely stand out when compared to their larger counterparts. In fact, the World Wildlife Federation (WWF) notes that island dwellers are significantly smaller than any of the elephants that would be found on the mainland, and they were likely estranged from their much larger ancestors some 300,000 years ago!

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Standing between 8.2 and 9.8 feet in height, these miniature elephants typically reside in the forests of Borneo and Sumatra, where their once lush habitat has begun to shrink. The WWF points out that despite being very high up on the priority list when it comes to conservation efforts, there just isn't much known about the elephants.

But, the WWF hopes to change that, and in a first of its kind project, they have been following Bornean elephants since 2005 when they attached satellite trackers onto elephants from five different herds located in Sabah, Malaysia. Using the data they've gathered they've finally been able to pinpoint some of the dangers currently facing the Bornean elephants today.

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Why is Borneo elephant endangered?

A frightfully familiar story is at the heart of the potential extinction of the Bornean elephant, and it involves increased contact with human beings. Because of deforestation and increased consumption of natural resources (including the increased building of palm oil plantations), Bornean elephants are losing their habitat. This is pushing them into the plantations and settlements, where people are using illegal traps to capture or kill small game.

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The WWF says that nearly 20 percent of the elephants currently being rehabilitated at the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary are there as a result of these very snares. As if that isn't sad enough, the loss of the forests where the elephants once freely roamed is hurting the Bornean elephants in another way as well: it's stealing their food sources.

All of this is creating the perfect storm for the newly classified animals, whose very survival hangs in the balance. That's why the WWF is pushing sustainable forest management options — to allow the elephants more access to natural forests for feeding and breeding. Not only will this help give them the shelter they need to survive, but it should reduce the amount of interaction they have with the humans, who are currently their biggest threat.

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