Lilliput Jumbos - a Subject of Debate

Bone of contention: An elephant, which some claim as pygmy elephant,
in the Peppara forests, near Thiruvananthapuram

The Hindu
By K.S. Sudhi

The existence or not of pygmy elephants ('Kallana' in Malayalam) is back in debate following the reported sighting of one such animal at Marakappara in the Peppara Wildlife Sanctuary in the State recently.

Sali Palode and Jain Angadikkal, wildlife photographers, reportedly photographed the animal on March 18 on a trip along with Mallan Kani, a tribesman. However, elephant experts say the existence of a dwarf race in one part of Kerala is improbable.

"We could see the animal as close as 100 metres and photograph it," Mr. Sali says.

Mr. Jain says the skin of the animal appeared wrinkled. It had a long tail and its trunk touched the ground. It looked like the miniature of an adult tusker.

"Although it is well known that smaller elephants were found on the island of Borneo, a DNA analysis by Columbia University in 2003 had confirmed that these elephants ( Elephas maximus borneensis) were a genetically distinct type of the Asian elephants," says R. Sukumar, Professor, Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.

"These elephants were recognised as 'an evolutionarily significant unit.' They are only slightly shorter than elephants in Sri Lanka or India. The elephants of Sumatra were somewhat shorter on average, but not so much that they can be called pygmy elephants. The use of the term pygmy was very misleading," said Mr. Sukumar, who is a member of the Project Elephant Task Force.

The WWF Website describes Borneo elephants as smaller in size than other Asian elephants. The males may only grow to less than 2.5 metres and have babyish faces, larger ears and longer tails that reach almost to the ground, the web site says.

Anil Antony, Wildlife Warden, Wildlife Division, Thiruvananthapuram, says forest officials, along with Mallan Kani, visited the area immediately after the news came in. However, no evidence, not even its dung, could be found.

Regarding Peppara, Dr. Sukumar says there can be variations in size of the animals in natural populations. No perspective regarding the height of the animal can be obtained from the picture. It appeared to be weak and the long hair in its tail looked distinctive on assessing the photograph taken by the wildlife photographers, he says.

T.N.C. Vidya, who was part of the team that conducted the DNA studies on Borneo elephants, says there is nothing to suggest that it is a pygmy adult elephant that was photographed.

"Just as there are dwarfs among humans, if one does come across an occasional true elephant dwarf, that is not reason enough to think that it is a different subspecies or species. The Borneo elephants have evolved in isolation from other elephant populations for hundreds of thousands of years," says Dr. Vidya, a Ramanujan Fellow of the Evolutionary and Organismal Biology Unit of the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, Bangalore.

"In Kerala, there are no such populations in isolation and, therefore, I will not expect to find any distinct race of elephant," she says.

"I had worked on the population genetic structure of Asian elephants across India, including those from Kerala, and found that there has been gene flow across large landscapes. While there are small regional differences, there are no distinct subspecies or races in different regions of the country. Therefore, the existence of a dwarf race in one part of Kerala is extremely improbable," Dr. Vidya says.

P.S. Easa, member, Steering Committee of the Project Elephant Task Force and expert in elephant ecology and behaviour, says there exists no environmental factors in the Kerala forests for the evolution of pygmy elephants.

 Original Article