Thursday 1 October 2009

Pygmy Pachyderms? On the track of pygmy elephants, from Fortean Times

This is a slightly longer version of my article, which appeared in Fortean Times 251, with an update (14/04/13, in bold in the text) after having talked to Dr Victoria Herridge again in 2013.

A life-size model of extinct elephant Elephas tilensis, last of the known fossil pygmy elephants of the Mediterranean, being manhandled into the Museum of Geology in Athens. Although "only" 5ft (1m 55cm) at the shoulder, E. telensis was one of the bigger Mediterranean dwarf elephants, and was about the same size as the putative present-day kallaana and Elephas pumilio are said to be. Photo by kind permission of George Lyras

ELEPHANTS are the world’s largest land animals, but some claim there are pygmy elephants out there too. The fossil record has a rich variety of extinct pygmy elephants from around the world. But there are also reports of living pygmy elephants – India’s kallaana, Thailand’s Chang Khom, and West Africa’s “wakawaka” and Loxodonta pumillio. Following good Fortean practice, I present below some evidence for and against pygmy elephants, and leave readers to make their own minds up.

The known prehistoric pygmy elephants of the fossil record were as small as 3 foot (just under one metre) at the shoulder, with babies as small as a large cat. Some may have still been around when the first humans arrived on their island habitats, as recently as 6000 years ago. By comparison, “pygmy elephant” is a misleading description of modern cryptid pachyderms. Alleged present day pygmy elephants aren’t supposed to be that small. Witnesses describe them as around five foot (150cm) high at the shoulder, so they’d still be powerful beasts by anybody’s reckoning.

22 different living species of African elephant were described in early 20th century, and it was fashionable for hunters to develop new taxonomic names for their kills, often naming them after themselves. German zoologist Paul Matschie then whittled these dubious African elephants down to four species based on the shapes of their skulls, and by the 1940s zoologists had consolidated African elephants into the two types we recognize today – the smaller Loxodonta africana cyclotis (the forest elephant) and Loxodonta africana africana (the savannah elephant, also called the Sudan elephant or “bush” elephant, the type we’re likely to see in zoos.)

Controversy rages about whether these are species or sub-species. Zoologist factions of “lumpers” and “splitters” either categorise them together as a single species, with L. cyclotis as a sub-species of L. africana africana, or insist the savannah elephant and the forest elephant are two separate species. (1)

The savannah elephant, the biggest of all elephants, lives in East Africa, and also shares space with the forest elephant L. africana cyclotis in Central and West Africa. Forest elephants are found in rainforests, and compared to savannah elephants they’re stockier and rounder, with straighter, thinner tusks and with a smaller adult size range – from 6.6ft-9.8ft (2-3m). Hannibal’s elephants that crossed the Alps were probably all forest elephants.

The forest elephant has only been widely known since 1924, which led to many bog-standard forest elephants being misidentified as “pygmy elephants” by big game hunters unaware of a smaller sub-species already known to science. As late as 1934, Guy Dollman of London’s Natural History Museum complained that the then Governor of Sierra Leone kept presenting him with trophies of the “sumbi dwarf species of elephant from Gola Province,” easily identifiable as “beyond any question of doubt the skulls of young elephants” of the known forest elephant sub-species. (2)

Big game hunters of the early 20th century referred to 1911-vintage “growth tables” based on observations of captive South Aftican savannah elephants. By comparison, specimens like the 2m10cm at the shoulder (6ft 8in) specimens shot by W.D. Bell in Cameroon were defined as “small or dwarf elephants”, while they were of a respectable height for that sub-species. (3)

The best known “pygmy elephant” was a male named “Congo”, sold to the New York Zoological Society for Bronx Zoo by animal dealer Carl Hagenbeck in 1905 as a specimen of mesalla, a dwarf species of elephant from Cameroon “never before seen in captivity… many of the natives say that it never becomes taller than a man.” Zoologist Theodore Noack looked Congo over while he was at Hagenbeck’s zoo in Hamburg en route to America, and pronounced him the type specimen of a hitherto unknown species of pygmy elephant, Loxodonta pumilio, which doubled Congo’s asking price to $2,500. (4)

Bronx Zoo proudly displayed Congo as their pygmy elephant. But, alas, it seems they had been conned. Congo was shot by his keeper after succumbing to a chronic leg infection at the still juvenile estimated age of 11, and was 6ft 8 in (2m 10cm) on his death – a respectable height for a forest elephant. Congo’s remains are at the New York’s Natural History Museum, and are now described as those of a “forest elephant.”

Other often-cited evidence for “pygmy elephants” comes from around 1911, during the exploration of Lake Leopold II in the Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Lake Mai-Ndombe, or its tributaries, reports are vague). A Lieutenant Franssen (presumably in the Belgian army) heard stories from the local Bongo tribe of an unusual elephant dwelling on the shores of the lake, and was determined to bag a specimen. Following its tracks, which were “very different to that of an elephant,” he eventually did shoot a specimen of what is certainly a strange-looking elephant, and estimated from its corpse that it would have stood 1.66m (5ft 4in) tall. Franssen named it Loxodonta africana fransseni, and died of a tropical fever soon afterwards. There was another unusual elephant sighting around the lake at around that time, of a “troupe of six individuals”, all with short trunks, short ears, and a longer than usual neck. The size of these elephants “did not pass two metres in height” – well within the range of an adult forest elephant. Locals called it wakawaka, the elephant that “comes with the rains”.

A closer look at these stories shows they are second- or third-hand cobblings together of different reports, with unsourced additions. The original French source for the Lake Leopold water elephants seems to be a 300-word entry in La Nature from 1910-1911, describing the “troupe of six individuals” snorkeling across the lake with trunks raised. This report didn’t once use the word “dwarf” (nain in French) or dwell on their size, and described only elephants with unusual behaviour and habitat, with no mention of a Lieutenant Franssen or wakawaka. The information that the observers only saw “water elephants” for “a few moments” (quelques instantes) was omitted from later versions. (5)

DNA analysis has not been kind to the legend of the pygmy elephant. A 2003 DNA survey examined nine “dwarf” elephant specimens from museums in Terneuven and Paris (including Lieutenant Franssen’s “L. africana fransseni”). Skull morphology suggested these were all “extremely small individuals, at least four of them are adults,” but that all L. pumilio and L. fransseni specimens were bog-standard forest elephants. The investigators team declared, “pygmy elephants are the results of individual cases of nanism (dwarfism) or pathological growth… We conclude that the specific taxon Loxodonta pumilio (or Loxodonta fransseni) should be abandoned.” (6)

DNA evidence has thrown up another possible explanation for elephants misidentified as “pygmies.” We now know that forest elephants move in and out the forests and into the savannah, and that there are whole populations of savannah elephant-forest elephant hybrids. “Father of cryptozoology” Bernard Heuvelmans mentioned local traditions reported from the Belgian Congo of “a third type of elephant” or “red elephant” living alongside forest and savannah elephants. While Western explorers took this to be a pygmy elephant, could they have misunderstood the locals describing a forest elephant-savannah elephant hybrid? (7)

A late 1990s mitochondrial DNA survey of live forest elephants in Congo DR’s Gararamba National Park by Dr Al Roca showed that half the specimens examined had the mitochondrial DNA of a forest elephant mother and the nuclear DNA of a savannah elephant father. Some now argue that entire elephant populations are now so hybridized that there’s a separate third species evolved from hybrids. And Dr Colin Groves of the Australian National University says some herds of forest elephants “often don’t have bulls.” Could the fathers of this herd be from a different herd of occasionally encountered savannah elephants? Dr Victoria Herridge, a researcher at London’s Natural History Museum, also concluded some of the specimens of long-dead zoo, museum and circus elephants she has looked at seemed to be hybrids. (Update, 16/04/13: I talked to Dr Herridge again, and she said I had misunderstood her when I interviewed her back in 2007. She had never looked at these specimens, nor concluded they were hybrids, she was only reporting comments made to her by Regis Debruyne in a previous conversation they'd had, in which Debruyne had suggested that he felt that some of the museum specimens he'd seen had signs of being "morphologically intermediate" between savannah elephants and forest elephants, see footnote 6.) R.L. Garner, director of Bronx Zoo while “Congo” was there, admitted Congo might have been not a pygmy but an “an intermediate type” – a hybrid? (8)

You can’t get a more distinguished eyewitness than Harald Nestroy, who briefly served in West German Chancellor Billy Brandt’s federal cabinet. In 1982, as German ambassador to what’s now Congo Brazaville, he was on a legal elephant hunt in the remote Likouala region. This is in the national park which includes Lake Tele, rumoured haunt of alleged dinosaur survivor mokele mbembe (FT ??,?? ) Likouala is also home to the world’s only pygmy crocodile, Osteolaemus tetraspis, and it’s where the wakawaka water elephants were spotted and Lieutenant Franssen shot his Loxodonta africana fransseni. If you wanted to hide a pygmy elephant, Likouala would be the place to do it. (9)

Nestroy photographed what he claimed was a herd of pygmy elephants, and soon afterwards he photographed a group of conventional-sized forest elephants and buffalo in the same clearing, which helped give an idea of scale. One of his two pygmy elephant herd photos shows a large bird, a while cattle egret, standing behind one of the adults, from which it is estimated the adults in the group are 1.50m (5ft) tall, at least a foot shorter than forest elephants should be.

In recent years we’ve learnt much about forest elephant society and behaviour, as a result of an ongoing 16-year study at Dzanga Clearing in the Central African Republic. When the mothers of savannah elephants are shot by poachers, her calves rarely survive. But orphaned forest elephant calves do often survive, as younger females of 14 years and up apparently compete with each other to adopt them. Given that Nestroy’s sighting was at the height of a wave of elephant slaughter, he could have come across a group of younger female survivors and their adopted calves, the larger members of the herd having been shot for their ivory. (10)

Heuvelmans conceded that Africa’s pygmy elephants “may merely be the freak offspring of normal elephants. It is often difficult to distinguish between true pygmies and pathological dwarves.” It is of course possible that there were races of African dwarf elephants, but they’ve been wiped out in three waves of mass elephant slaughter – in the early twentieth century, for ivory billiard balls, until World War One caused the ivory market to crash, in the 1970s and 1980s Asian consumer ivory boom, and in the current desperate civil wars of Africa, which have introduced a lot of cheap automatic rifles into the continent and displaced many people deep into the jungle with no livelihoods.

A 1994 US Fish and Wildlife Survey reconnaissance flight found an undiscovered lake in the remote Odzala National Park, in Congo Brazaville, littered with 200 elephant carcasses shot within the previous three years. Another elephant kill site, with over 100 slaughtered elephants shot within the preceeding two years, was found in Chad in 2007. A dwarf elephant population could have been eradicated by poachers – or displaced from its habitat and bred out by mating with other elephants – and we’d never know it. The determination of Lieutenant Franssen, the Governor of Sierra Leone and others to shoot and bring back a definitive “type specimen” to prove the existence of pygmy elephants seemed guaranteed to drive them to extinction if they ever existed.

Hunters may even have made up pygmy elephant to legitimise their activities. According to Heuvelmans, British big game hunter W R Foran claimed in the 1950s that pygmy elephants were invented by ivory traders, as it was then forbidden (under Congo Free State “special permits”) to kill elephants that weren’t fully grown, so when poachers shot a young one they pretended it was a pygmy.

P.T.Barnum’s five-foot stuffed ‘pygmy elephant,’ once exhibited alive, still exists and was auctioned to a private collector in 2006. But it was such a botched taxidermy job that it’s hard to draw any conclusions about its size when alive.

Forest elephants like to stay hidden in the forest, and often the only indication they are ten feet (3.5m) away from you is that you can hear them breathing. We can still only estimate elephant numbers using a number-crunching formula based on piles of dung. Conservationists admit that because of wars going on in Angola, Congo, Sudan and Somalia, “no one has any clear idea of the fate of the elephant populations” there and that it’s “still impossible to gauge the numbers present with any degree of precision” in forests.” Africa’s elephants have surprised us with their feats of unexpected survival. Everyone anticipated that war in Eritrea would have killed off the few remaining elephants there, but in 2001 a herd was suddenly discovered in the Gash River on the Ethiopian border, living in symbiosis with baboons. And in southern Sudan, despite the war, a herd of elephants was found living on a treeless island as recently as 2007. In several countries, forest elephants were thought to have disappeared, until suddenly reports came in of crops being destroyed out of the blue by big herds that then vanish. (11)

The evidence for living Asian pygmy elephants in India seems stronger. The Asian elephant Elephas maximus (often called “Indian elephant” outside Asia) shows great variation in size and physique across the continent, with some populations given dubious sub-species designations, and one variety already unofficially known as “pygmy elephants.” The Indian mainland elephant, Elephas maximus indicus weighs 2.5-4.5 metric tonnes and stands up to 3m (almost 10ft) at the shoulder. There’s such a range of elephant physiques within India that there’s even a “caste” system for describing different builds of elephant – the koomeeriah (“thoroughbred”) is the stocky, barrel-shaped, well-proportioned variety and mriga (Sanskrit for “deer”) is a slimmer and more delicate elephant type. Female Asian elephants usually lack tusks, and some of India’s bigger males are makhnas – without tusks.

As you go east of India, Asian elephants get smaller and lighter in colour. Thai, Vietnamese, Cambodian and Burmese elephants, and the handful of elephants still living in Bangladesh and China, are smaller than India’s, as are Sumatra’s elephants, which live in 44 completely isolated populations, and which some designate as a separate sub-species, Elephas maximus sumatrensis.

The elephants of Borneo are described by the World Wildlife Fund and others as “pygmy elephants,” but they are still massive beasts. With a height of around 6ft (1.8m) at the shoulder, they’re only six inches (15cm) shorter than their distant cousins on the mainland. Borneo “pygmy elephants” have proportionally bigger heads compared to their body, their faces have a rather comically sad expression, and their tails reach almost to the ground. Proportionally bigger heads were a characteristic of the much smaller extinct island dwarf elephants of the fossil record. Research into Borneo elephant DNA in 2003 showed that their ancestors separated from the mainland population about 300,000 years ago. Confined to the northern tip of the island, Sabah, in Malaysian territory, and on the endangered list, Borneo’ “pygmy elephtants” are down to about 1000 living individuals.

Research last year (2008) on Borneo “pygmy elephants” suggests even weirder origins. The Sarawak Museum Journal could find no archaeological evidence for elephants on Borneo before 1700, and reports by the first Western explorers to arrive don’t mention any. It seems Borneo’s elephants were shipped form South Sulah, the southernmost tip of the Philippines archipelago, to nearby Borneo, which was then part of Sultanate of Sulah and North Borneo, but was subsequently leased to Western adventurers by the Sultanate. After the dust of occupation of the Philippines by Spain and then America had settled, Sabah had become Malaysian. (12)

Elephants on Sulah were hunted to extinction some time around 1800. The inhabitants of Sabah have long regarded the island’s wild elephants as having a domestic origin, and the island’s elephants have a reputation for being less aggressive than their Asian cousins. The designation Elephas maximus borneensis is still unofficial.

Back in India, recent estimates put India’s wild elephant population at as little as 20,000, with perhaps 15,000 in captivity. There are believed to be between 59 and 100 distinct populations of wild elephants in India’s isolated forests, “with little or no possibility of genetic interchange.” (13)

Starting in the early 1990s, an increasing number of reports emerged of kallaana – living pygmy elephants from the forested Agastyar mountain range in Peppara Wildlife Sanctuary in the southern state of Kerala. Kallaana was said to be “under 5ft” (1.5m) at the shoulder when fully-grown, or even as small as “half the size” of a normal elephant. But kallaana is a longstanding tradition in the culture of Kerala. The name – in the Malayalam language spoken by about 30 million people in southern India – means “stone elephant,” because the little elephants are said to scramble over rocky slopes which conventionally-sized elephants can’t negotiate. The Malayali community say that they in turn got their kallaana traditions from the Kani tribal people that live in and around the Peppara Sanctuary in 12 settlements. Another Kani name for the kallaana is “thumbiaana,” meaning “as light as a butterfly”, a reference to the great speed with which if flits through the forests when pursued. It’s interesting to note how some paleontologists have speculated that the fossil pygmy stegadons (an extinct close relative of elephants) in prehistoric Indonesia may have developed “low-gear locomotion” as their legs shortened, a possible adaptation allowing them to scramble up steep slopes to get access to upland pastures. But Dr Herridge points out that full-size elephants can handle slopes surprisingly well. (14)

According to the Kani tribals, kallaana are shyer and less aggressive than conventional Asian elephants, and avoid contact with them. Sali Palode, an art teacher from the village of Palode, Kerala, and a professional photographer who won India’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year Award in 2007, photographed what he claimed were several kallaana on 8 January 2005. Palode had been on the trail of kallaana for five years, a quest that was based on the sound Fortean principle of asking the locals – he had been alerted by Mallan Kani, a local “tribal” guide, who brought him to the banks of the Karmana river.

Sali put the height of kallaana at “just over 150 cm” (just under 5ft) and said it had “a different look, particularly in terms of the shape of the skull”. He added, “the shrunk (sic) forehead and ear folds are proof that this was an adult.” He photographed another live kallaana three days later, and came across the body of a recently dead female kallaana, which he also photographed. He said of this second sighting that “we were just 10 metres (about 30ft) away and I am sure it was 10-15 years old… Notice the wrinkles on the trunks. A baby elephant will be hairy and have soft skin.” He cited the “grown-up nipples” on the corpse, which was taken away by Kerala Forest Research Institute (KFRI) officials and cremated, but not before they took a DNA sample. There’s no word yet on any tests on this sample. If the intention was to send a sample for analysis by the KFRI’s better-resourced partners on its elephant surveys, the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bangalore, it doesn’t appear to have arrived there. Ecologist Professor Raman Sukumar, chair of the IISc’s Asian Elephant Special Group, who participated in local KFI elephant surveys, said that “no tissue or DNA samples have been sent to me” from Kerala, nor to his colleagues at Bangalore’s Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research.(15)

Asian elephant families stay together in tight-knit groups to protect calves well into their early teens, and calves up to two years old have bristly hair like a mammoth. These characteristics would help prevent misidentification of an Asian elephant calf as an adult dwarf. But the IISc’s Prof. Sukumar, the expert on Asian elephant ecology, suggests that kallaana “could be the result of an morphological variation, not a new species." He adds that witnesses could “mistake a sub-adult male in a herd as a dwarf elephant. Sometimes, tuskers in their teens get together and play with a herd… I think somebody has mistook one such for the mythical kallaana.” While pygmy elephants of the fossil record evolved on islands free of predators, Prof Sukumar notes that the Peppara Sanctuary is not an island forest where animals could evolve in isolation – the forest is connected to surrounding areas, and it has tigers. (16)

Other critics note that Palode’s photos don’t contain anything with which we could compare the elephants to give us an idea of scale, and that his kallaana photos look a lot like a young Borneo pygmy elephants, and could actually be these.

In 1995, KFRI conducted a search for kallaana after reports by “tribals.” January 2005 saw a KFRI survey supported by ecologists from the Bangalore-based IISc to look for kallaana, and for kallaana dung from which they could take DNA samples. But unexpectedly early “heavy rain… forced the officials to abandon the programme… The dung of the animals would get washed away in the heavy rain.” Dr. Easwaran of the KFRI said at the time that the Kani had misidentified “young and short elephants leaving the group and venturing out in search of water during summer months.” An unnamed forest official referred to the body found by Sali Palode and taken away for cremation, confirming that the body of a small elephant had recently been found (presumably the one found by Mani and Palode and removed for cremation). “At first we thought it was a calf,” commented Kerala’s Chief Conservator of Forests, a Mr Varghese.

Forestry officials again went looking for kallaana dung in March 2005, and interviewed the Kani “tribals.” The survey leader, Neyyar-Peppara Sanctuary Wildlife Warden L. Krishnaprasad, reported that "our officials, along with members of the tribe, perambulated the area where the animal was reportedly sighted but to no avail.” B.S. Corrie, former Chief Wildlife Warden, said at the time that the absence of evidence for kallaana "does not mean that the animal is not present in Kerala forest.”

In May of the same year, it was reported that another “search for the pygmy elephant in the forests of Kerala has drawn a blank.” The census team, again supported by IISc, found “no traces in the Agasthyavanam forests - The teams have concluded that the pygmy elephant is non-existent at least in the Kerala forests.” A search for kallaana was also part of an elephant survey of the district in 2008 by 60 forestry officials. While the survey identified 21 conventionally-sized local elephants from footprints and eyewitness reports, it found no evidence for kallaana. (17)

Pygmy Asian elephants may also have lived as recently as 1920 in southern Thailand. A pygmy or “humpbacked” elephant, called Chang Khom or Chang Pru was said by villagers to be water buffalo-sized. Thai naturalist Dr Boonsong Lekhakul recorded in an article that “some 30-50 years ago” (no date given) how people claimed that Chang Khom could be seen in the Pru Forest along the Songkhla Beach. Some older locals maintained that the Chang Khom were just young elephants. The Elephant Institute of Thailand states that “no definitive conclusion has been reached as to whether dwarf elephants ever existed in Thailand.”

Surprising Asian elephant populations occasionally turn up, such as Sir John Bashford Snell’s 1993 encounter with a previously unknown group of six huge male elephants with high-domed heads, over 11ft (3.3 m), in the Royal Bardia National Park on the Indian-Nepali border (FT 70, 31). The pygmy hippo was written off as a “native legend” until the naturalist Robert Hermann Schomburgk brought one to Europe from Liberia in 1913. Pygmy hippos were until recently believed to have become extinct in the wild, another casualty of one of Africa’s many civil wars, until a pygmy hippo was photographed by a camera trap in the Liberian rainforest early last year (2008). Living deep in a forest, and with a need to run from leopard predators, the pygmy hippo would have a very similar ecological niche to the to putative kallaana.

India’s scientific establishment are certainly prepared to entertain the idea that kallaana could be out there, and to keep an open mind. Says Prof. Sukumar of the search for kallaana, “While I will not rule out anything (scientists should be open to unexpected surprises), I have not seen anything convincing so far… This is still a worthwhile venture.” (18)

More photos here and a link to a 2008 talk on pygmy elephants here...

For details of the book Pygmy Elephants (Matt Salusbury, CFZ Press 2013) see here.

No comments: