Elephas maximus Linnaeus 1758
by Ms. Ajla Rafidah Baharom & Ms. Siti Fariezza Bt Khairi Thaw
Elephas maximus Linnaeus 1758
by Ms. Ajla Rafidah Baharom & Ms. Siti Fariezza Bt Khairi Thaw

The Asian Elephant, Elephas maximus or gajah in Malay, occurs in both Peninsular Malaysia and Sabah but is not found in Sarawak. The elephants in Borneo are locally known as the Borneo pygmy elephant, found mainly in Sabah and a small area of Kalimantan. In comparison with the African Elephant (Loxodonta africana), the Asian Elephant is smaller in size with its highest body point on its head whereas the former has its highest body point on its shoulder (Shoshani & Eisenberg, 1982).

Thus far, three subspecies of the Asian Elephant have been recognised, namely, E. maximus indicus of the Asian mainland, E. maximus maximus on Sri Lanka and E. maximus sumatranus on the Indonesian Island of Sumatra (Choudhury et al., 2008). Another proposed subspecies is E. maximus borneensis referring to the Bornean elephant. The results of a genetic study conducted by Fernando and co-workers (2003) suggest that the Bornean Elephant is native to Borneo; it is genetically distinct and is recognised as a separate evolutionary unit. However, the study also suggests that a formal recognition of the proposed subspecies E. maximus borneensis should be done after detailed morphological analysis has been conducted. A preliminary study on the morphometrics of the Bornean elephant finds that there is no significant difference in the morphological measurements between Bornean elephants and Peninsular Malaysian elephants (Othman et al., 2008). Cranbrooke and his co-workers (2008) also suggest that the Bornean elephant’s ancestors are possibly the extinct Javan elephant, supporting the claim that the elephant is introduced to Borneo. The lack of evidence of elephant remains such as bones and skulls in Borneo also suggests that the Bornean elephant is less likely to be native to Borneo. The origin of the Bornean elephant and its indigenous status to Borneo island is still being debated by scientists to this day.

A study by Salman and his fellow researchers (2011) shows that an estimated 1223 to 1677 individual elephants are widely distributed in seven of the 11 states of Peninsular Malaysia, with the largest population occurring in Taman Negara National Park. This is because Taman Negara National Park is the largest protected area in the peninsula and is also the main release area for translocated elephants. The total number of elephants in Sabah has been estimated to be around 2040 individuals with a range of between 1184 and 3652, with the highest density in the upper catchment of the Ulu Segama Forest Reserve followed by the Danum Valley Conservation Area (Alfred et al., 2011).

In Malaysia, habitat loss and forest fragmentation have been the main causes of the decline in the elephant population. Elephant habitats are shrinking because of agricultural development, mainly due to the conversion of forest areas to oil palm and rubber plantations. These plantations are also accompanied by human settlements, roads and dams that further fragment the elephant habitat. Consequently, this has often led to human-elephant conflicts as the elephants encroach into plantations while searching for food and water. These crop raiding elephants have caused major financial losses to plantation owners and damage to properties. The government has been working on the implementation of the National Elephant Conservation Action Plan for Peninsular Malaysia (Department of Wildlife and National Parks Peninsular Malaysia, 2013) and Elephant Action Plan 2012-2016 for Sabah (Sabah Wildlife Department, 2011) to ensure the survival and recovery of elephant populations and also to prevent habitat degradation.

The overall global population trend of E. maximus is decreasing as a result of illegal poaching and habitat loss. Elephas maximus is now categorised as Endangered, A2c by IUCN (Choudhury et al., 2008). It is also listed on CITES Appendix I which prohibits the international trade of specimens of this species. In Peninsular Malaysia, the status of E. maximus has been elevated from protected species in 1972 to totally protected species in 2010, and hunting, taking, keeping, importing, or exporting of the elephants are subjected to the Wildlife Conservation Act 2010. In Sabah, its status has also been upgraded to Schedule I “Totally Protected Species”, which is the highest level of protection under the Sabah Wildlife Conservation Enactment (WCE) 1997.


  1. Alfred, R., Ambu, L., Nathan, S.K.S.S. & Goossens, B. (2011). Current status of Asian elephants in Borneo. Gajah 35, 29-35
  2. Cranbrook, E., Payne, J. & Leh, C.M.U. (2008). Origin of the elephants Elephas maximus L. of Borneo. Sarawak Mus. J. 63, 1-25
  3. Di Dario, F.IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Retrieved November 30, 2016, from
  4. Elephant Action Plan 2012 – 2016, 2011. Sabah Wildlife Department (SWD), Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia.
  5. Fernando, P., Vidya, T.N.C., Payne, J., Stuewe, M., Davison, G.W.H., Alfred, R., Andau, P., Edwin, B., Kilbourn, A. & Melnick, D.J. (2003). DNA analysis indicates that Asian elephants are native to Borneo and are therefore a high priority for conservation. PLoS Biology 1 (1), e6
  6. National Elephant Conservation Action Plan: Blueprint to Save Malaysian Elephants, 2013. Department of Wildlife and National Parks Peninsular Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
  7. Othman, N., Mohamed, M., Ahmad, A.H., Nathan, S.K.S.S., Pierson, H.T. & Goossens, B. (2008). A preliminary study on the morphometrics of the Bornean Elephant. Journal of Tropical Biology and Conservation (JTBC) 4 (1), 109-113
  8. Saaban, S., Othman, N., Yasak, M.N., Burhanuddin, M.N., Zafir, A. & Campos-Arceiz, A. (2011). Current Status of Asian Elephants in Peninsular Malaysia. Gajah 35, 67-75
  9. Shoshani, S. & Eisenberg, J.F. (1982). Elephas maximus. Mammalian Species (182), 1-8
  10. Wildlife Conservation Act (2010). Laws of Malaysia Act 716
  11. Wildlife Conservation Enactment 1997 (1997)
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