The Sultan of Sulu inadvertently saved a species of pygmy elephant centuries ago by importing them from one island to another in the present-day Philippines and Indonesia.
The Sultan of Sulu, which ruled present-day Borneo, may have sought out the striking species, or received the pygmy elephants as a gift from the ruler of present-day Java, according to the new account of the species' unlikely survival story published in Sarawak Museum Journal and publicized by WWF.
Such extravagant wildlife gifts were common. But what happened to this pygmy elephant after the gift was anything but.
After Europeans arrived in Java, the native population of pygmy elephants went extinct. Meanwhile, the sultan's elephants bred and were released into the jungle, where they thrived.
"The origins of the pygmy elephants, found in a range extending from the north-east of the island into the Heart of Borneo, have long been shrouded in mystery," WWF states. "Their looks and behavior differ from other Asian elephants and scientists have questioned why they never dispersed to other parts of the island."
The Borneo pygmy elephant was named based on the understandable belief that it originated on Borneo, where the sultan ruled. But the new genetic research suggests that a better name might be the displaced Java pygmy elephant. Or, maybe just the Sultan of Sulu's pygmy elephant, since the only elephants in this species to have survived to modern times are descended from those long-ago gifts.
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 of WWF, one of the papers co-authors. And that may be what happened in practice here.
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