While the Philippines does not have an endemic breed of elephant today, the ones now existing in the Indonesia portion of Borneo apparently owe their survival to some elephants earlier gifted to the Sultan of Sulu but which he later sent to North Borneo (Sabah) which it as still under the dominion of the Sultanate.

Borneo is the third-largest island in the world and the largest in Asia. Although it is politically divided among three countries with Malaysia and Brunei in the north, and Indonesia to the south, approximately 73% of the island is Indonesian territory. 

Earlier in history, the Philippines indeed had an indigenous progenitor of the elephant. In the Museo de Oro of Xavier University-Ateneo de Cagayan is an exhibit of the fossilized bones identified as those of a Stegodon  which lived from 11.6 million years ago (mya) to the late Pleistocene, and found in Asia and Africa, when it was more prevalent than the Asian elephants.

Stegodons were previously believed to be ancestors of the true elephants and mammoths, but currently they are believed to have no modern descendants. Stegodon may be derived from Stegolophodon, an extinct genus known from the Miocene of Asia. Stegodon is considered to be a sister group of elephants and mammoths.

“The National Museum later corroborated the finds, and identified it as Stegodon Mindanensis,” said Luis Ostique, museum operations and administration officer. “The fossils included some pieces of the tusk, pieces of rib bones. and fragments of leg bones which were found in Barangay Sinai, Municipality of Laguindingan, Misamis Oriental, some 30 kilometers from Cagayan de Oro in 2010.”

Aside from the Stegodon, Dwarf Elephants were also believed to have lived in the Philippines during the Pleistocene era, specifically in Luzon and Panay. It is believed that the Stegodon along with other prehistoric mammals entered Mindanao through the land bridge known as the Sunda Shelf and migrated northward.

But the Stegodon and the Dwarf Elephants eventually became extinct and it wasn’t until much later that elephants were again found in Southern Philippines when Bornean elephants were gifted to the Sultans of Sulu and Maguindanao by the Sultanate of Java.

Elephants comprise three living species and are the largest living land animals.

Indonesia has two of the four sub-species of the Asian Elephant: the Sumatran and the Borneo elephant. The Sumatran elephant (Elephas maximus sumatranus) is only found on the island of Sumatra and was originally thought to be the smallest of the Asian elephants.

However, it was discovered in 2005 that the Borneo or pygmy elephant (Elephas maximus borneensis) was a separate species from those found on the Asian mainland. The Borneo sub species are found in the Indonesian province of Kalimantan, which shares the same island with Borneo.

The smallest Asian elephant subspecies, Bornean elephants are distinctly smaller than their mainland cousins. They have long tails that sometimes touch the ground, relatively large ears, and straighter tusks. While they are also known as Borneo pygmy elephants due to their smaller size, at 8.2-9.8 feet tall, the Bornean elephant is the largest mammal on the island.

Pygmy elephants, so called because they are smaller and less aggressive than mainland Asian elephants, number perhaps 1,000 today and live in lowland forests in Borneo that are shrinking under the threat from timber, rubber and palm oil plantations.

With their larger ears, more rotund features and longer tails, the animals differ from other Asian elephants and scientists have long questioned why they never spread to other parts of the island, the WWF said. (Reuters, 2018)

The latter’s ancestors were actually in Southern Philippines, and their prehistoric kin right here at our very doorstep!

Once believed to be remnants of a domesticated herd given to the Sultan of Sulu in the 17th century, Bornean elephants were determined by WWF to be genetically different from other Asian elephants. DNA evidence proved that these elephants were isolated about 300,000 years ago from their cousins on mainland Asia and Sumatra. (worldwildlife.org)

Raja Baguinda

According to one story, the Raja of Java gifted two Bornean elephants to Raja Baguinda around 1395.

Rajah Baguinda Ali, also known as Rajah Baginda Ali, Rajah Baginda, Raha Baguinda, or Rajah Baguinda, was a prince from a Minangkabau kingdom in Sumatra, Indonesia called Pagaruyung. (Baginda/Baguinda is a Minangkabau honorific for prince) although some sources say he was a native Bajau prince of Sabah. He was the leader of the forming polity in SuluPhilippines, which later became the Sultanate of Sulu.

𝗥𝗮𝗷𝗮𝗵 𝗕𝗮𝗴𝘂𝗶𝗻𝗱𝗮 𝗦𝗵𝗿𝗶𝗻𝗲 𝗮𝘁 𝗕𝘂𝗱 𝗗𝗮𝘁𝘂 (𝗣𝗿𝗶𝗻𝗰𝗲’𝘀 𝗠𝗼𝘂𝗻𝘁) 𝗼𝗻 𝗝𝗼𝗹𝗼 𝗜𝘀𝗹𝗮𝗻𝗱.
(photo courtesy of Alnajir Malli Kadil)

The Sultanate of Sulu enjoyed peaceful ties with the Hindu Sultanate of Java, and as a token of appreciation, the rulers of Java sent elephants to the Sultanates of Sulu and Maguindanao, and skeletal remains of small elephants were later found in the latter area in the main island of Mindanao.

The story goes that because of the lack of land ideal for their habitats, the elephants were later shipped by the Sultan of Sulu to northeast Borneo to help in hauling logs used in the construction of their sailing ships.

This was during the time when the Sultanate of Sulu still held dominion over the north-eastern part of the territory when Brunei Sultan Abdul Hakkul Mubin awarded Sulu Sultan-de-facto Salah ud-Din (also known to Spanish authorities as Pangiran Bactial and to Dutch officials as Pangiran Batticale. After his death, he was called Marhum Karamat) the northeast coast of Borneo, including Palawan, in June 1658 for helping settle a civil war dispute against Pengeran Bongsu Muhyuddin.

Most of the elephants under the employ of Sulu’s shipbuilders and traders were later released into the forests of Borneo and became the ancestors of a feral population at the western end of Borneo in the Indonesian province of Kalimantan.

Another version relates that the elephants were presented to the Sultan of Sulu in 1750 by the East India Company and later set free in Northern Borneo.

A still later account tells of a wild elephant population that existed in Jolo during the pre-Spanish era, who were the offspring of the two elephants given to Raja Baguinda, but which eventually died out in 1850.

The Back Story

Research published in 2008 supports a long-held local belief that the elephants were brought to Borneo centuries ago by the Sultan of Sulu and abandoned in the jungle, the WWF said.

The paper, “Origins of the Elephants Elephas Maximus L. of Borneo,” published by the Sarawak Museum Journal shows that there is no archaeological evidence of a long-term elephant presence on Borneo, the WWF said. (See website http://www.panda.org/index.cfm?uNewsID=131181)

Sarawak Museum – Originally built in 1891 to house and display arts and crafts of the indigenous people of Borneo, the Sarawak Museum has gained a reputation for having the single most comprehensive collection of Borneon artifacts to be found anywhere. The original 1891 building was designed in style of a Normandy town-house and was extended to its present structure in 1911. ( photo credit: Arenaa Star Luxury Hotel)


Scientists solved part of the mystery in 2003, when DNA testing by Columbia University and WWF ruled out the possibility that the Borneo elephants were from Sumatra or mainland Asia, where the other Asian subspecies are found, leaving either Borneo or Java as the most probable source.

The Sulu elephants are thought to have originated in Java, where elephants became extinct sometime in the period after Europeans arrived in South-East Asia, the WWF said. Elephants on Sulu, never considered native to the island, were hunted down in the 1800s.
“Just one fertile female and one fertile male elephant, if left undisturbed in enough good habitat, could in theory end up as a population of 2,000 elephants within less than 300 years,” said Junaidi Payne, one of the researchers. (Reuters, 2018)

What is certain is that the arrival of elephants in the north Kalimantan region of Borneo coincides with the rule of the Sultans of Sulu over Sabah.

If the Borneo pygmy elephants are in fact elephants from Java, an island more than 1,200 km (800 miles) south of their current range, it could be the first known elephant translocation in history, providing scientists with critical data from a centuries-long experiment.

Animals of Java. 17th-century artwork of a rhinoceros, an elephant, a tortoise and an iguana from Java, together with a tree. These animals were observed during a Dutch voyage to the East Indies (Indonesia). Artwork from ‘Rerum et urbis Amstelodamensium historia’ (1611) a history of Amsterdam by Dutch-Danish royal historiographer Johannes Isacius Pontanus (1571-1639). This book includes descriptions of the first Dutch voyage to the East Indies in 1595 by Cornelis de Houtman. Initial landfall was made at Java. Javan elephants went extinct by the end of the 18th century but some survived on Borneo.
(Credit: Middle Temple Library/Science Photo Library)

“Elephants were shipped from place to place across Asia many hundreds of years ago, usually as gifts between rulers,” said Mr Shim Phyau Soon, a retired Malaysian forester whose ideas on the origins of the elephants partly inspired the current research. “It’s exciting to consider that the forest-dwelling Borneo elephants may be the last vestiges of a subspecies that went extinct on its native Java Island, in Indonesia, centuries ago.”

There are perhaps just 1,000 of the elephants in the wild, mostly in the Malaysian state of Sabah. WWF satellite tracking has shown they prefer the same lowland habitat that is being increasingly cleared for timber rubber and palm oil plantations. Their possible origins in Java make them even more a conservation priority.

“If they came from Java, this fascinating story demonstrates the value of efforts to save even small populations of certain species, often thought to be doomed,” Christy Williams, of the WWF’s Asian elephant and rhino program, said in a statement.

 “It gives us the courage to propose such undertakings with the small remaining populations of critically endangered Sumatran rhinos and Javan rhinos, by translocating a few to better habitats to increase their numbers. It has worked for Africa’s southern white rhinos and Indian rhinos, and now we have seen it may have worked for the Javan elephant, too.”

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Cover photo: The Darul Jambangan (Palace of Flowers) was the palace of the Sultanate of Sulu based in Maimbung, Sulu, Philippines. It was believed to be the largest royal palace in the Philippines but was destroyed by a typhoon in 1932. A replice was built in 2016 in Talipao, Sulu.

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