Sabah’s Secret – The Bornean Pygmy Elephant

The Malaysian state of Sabah, on the island of Borneo has a secret. Deep in the forests that bound the Kinabatangan River, there is a rumble in the jungle. It is the sound of an elephant species that you may not realise exists.

I had spent 3 days, deep in the jungle of Borneo, sleeping in a timber-built eco-lodge. Early in the mornings, late in the afternoons and at night, I would head out on a longboat with a guide to search for some of the most spectacular creatures on the planet. I had compiled a list of wildlife that I hoped to see, and as the final day on the river came to an end, I had checked-off most of that list.

The light was fading fast as the sun sank into the steaming forest canopy, wrapping the boat in a hazy twilight. My guide announced that it was time to head back to camp, and moved towards the engine to turn us out of our lazy drift and point the nose towards home.  As he reached out to start the engine, we heard the swish of a large movement in the vegetation beside the boat. We stopped and looked over, half expecting to see another Proboscis monkey or Pig-tailed Macaque. We waited for a moment in silence, when suddenly an elephant shyly stepped forward.

I was shocked, very shocked! I hadn’t realised that elephants lived here. The guide became excited and told me to be very quiet while he silently pushed the boat back to create some respectful space for our visitors. He told me that it is very rare to see them and even more unusual to get a clear view.

The first appearance

The elephant backed into the bushes and we waited patiently. The light levels were getting lower by the minute, as if someone were slowly turning a dimmer switch.

A few minutes passed and a face appeared from the bushes. There was that moment of respectful unease shared between us and the elephant. I guess both parties were aware of the damage capable of being inflicted on each other, which has been proven for generations. As time passed, we got comfortable with each other’s presence.


The elephant stepped forward, into the water. I was immediately struck by the size and shape of this beautiful creature. Most of us have seen an elephant in our lives; some of us have had the privilege of viewing them in the wild, and most have enjoyed them in zoos or wildlife parks. This one was different.


As this forest elephant stepped further forward, the first thing that struck me was that it was small, and as others came in to view, they were the same small size. Compared to Asian elephants that I had seen in the past, the head appeared more rounded, the ears comparatively large, the trunk shorter and tail longer. It was as if someone had stolen Walt Disney’s blueprint for Dumbo. Yes, they were cute, but this did not detract from that feeling you get around an elephant; the feeling that you are in the presence of greatness and wisdom.


Some time passed and the only scrap of light that remained for photography,was the reflected sky from the surface of the ancient brown, soupy river. It was in these last, dying embers of the day that I experienced an unforgettable wildlife encounter.


One by one, the small herd of forest elephants stepped forward into the water and began to cross. Wading at first, and then deeper, until reaching the centre channel where they snorkeled across to the other side, clambering up the muddy bank and disappearing out of sight, into the dark jungle.


Bornean Pygmy elephants live only in Sabah, and predominantly along the Kinabatangan River. Until recently, it was thought that the elephants were an invasive species, descended from a herd gifted to, and released by the Sultan of Sulu. Evolution appeared to have worked at unusual speed, changing size and shape in just a few generations, causing scientists to become interested. DNA studies undertaken by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) have revealed that these elephants are a distinct sub-species that have been here, undisturbed, for over 300,000 years. The next question to be asked was, with all the vast, untouched jungles of Borneo, why are they confined to one small area of Sabah? With all geographical theories exhausted, the answer came; elephants the world over need salt and minerals. The Kinabatangan is the only reliable and forested source of these essential minerals.

It is estimated that there are only around 1500 endangered, Pygmy elephants left in the wild. The species has only been subject to proper scientific study in the last decade. Not much time when placed against 300,000 years of anonymity. Borneo’s well publicised de-forestation is bringing elephants in to contact with humans and it is estimated that 20% of the population suffer from wounds caused by snares set for wild pigs.

There is hope for this species, though. Through work undertaken by the WWF, there is now greater government awareness of the need to preserve sustainable forests along the Kinabatangan, and many farming communities in conflict with the species are now supporting their elephants. Much is still to be done, and the injection of cash from responsible eco-tourism can only support the drive for preservation of this vital habitat.

Only one elephant refused to cross in our presence. A nervous male began to growl and rumble in the gathering gloom, before sounding that unmistakable elephant bugle call to charge. The last thing that we wanted was to create stress in these magnificent, peaceful forest dwellers. The bugle call signified that it was time to push on the boat pole and release us back to the river’s flow, drifting quietly away from the herd, and from a beautiful, moving encounter.


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Categories: AsiaTags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


I am a wildlife blogger and traveler, using images & stories to inspire wild connections.


    • Hi Belinda, thanks for the comment! I tried the flash but to be honest, in twilight at the distance we were, it made no difference to either the elephants or the photograph. That said, if I re-lived the experience tomorrow I would avoid using flash as I try to avoid it for any wildlife photography now.

      Liked by 2 people

  1. A wonderful read and you captured the character of these beautiful creatures so well. I saw pygmy elephants last year and was so happy I cried. We saw a mother and her calf, I’ve never been so excited to see a wild animal. I love them 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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