Tracking Wild Elephants


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The exotic island of Borneo is home to a unique subspecies of elephant: Borneo Pygmy elephants (Elephas maximus borneensis). These particular elephants have interesting distinctions from their larger and more aggressive counterparts: pygmies max out at about 8 feet in height, have rounder faces, oversized ears and ground-grazing tails. They are tolerant of humans and commonly regarded as a docile population.

While the exact lineage of Borneo pygmy elephants remains a mystery, it’s possible they arrived on the island hundreds of years ago as a gift exchange between Sultans. Experts debate whether Borneo pygmy elephants are a sub-species of the Asian variety or the extinct Javan species.

Recently I experienced an exhilarating Terra Incognita Ecotour in Malaysian Borneo, and for four days we tracked through thick rainforest and murky, crocodile-infested waters for the opportunity to observe a wild herd of Borneo Pygmy elephants.

Responsible animal tracking is an adrenaline-pumping, unpredictable experience ­– You’re never quite sure what will happen, what creature awaits around the bend and if your sign-reading skills will result in wildlife encounter victory. And there are always surprises.

Ecotour excursions promote animal observation as a sacred experience, one that comes with responsibility. Natural habitat must be preserved and wildlife must be undisturbed at all times.

So the first day tracking in Borneo, we laced up our hiking boots and pulled leech-protecting socks over our pants. Mincho, our knowledgeable Malaysian guide from Red Ape Encounters led us through a protected rainforest looking for shy orangutans, an elusive sun bear, Wagler’s pit vipers and, of course, a herd of pygmy elephants.

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It played out like a suspenseful movie…. First, a voice up ahead: “What’s this?” And then Mincho standing along trail, pointing: “Elephant dung.”

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And nearby, elephant prints in the mud.

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… They were much bigger than my boot.

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But these remnants were simply ghosts in the rainforest – the elephants were long gone.

So, determined to spot the elephants (and other creatures like proboscis monkeys, hornbills and saltwater crocodiles), we took to the Kinabatangan River.

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This body of water stretches approximately 350 miles across Malaysian Borneo and contains rich ecosystems and diverse animal species. With the help of our honorary wildlife warden and his team, we navigated along the river and its canals in hopes of finding the elephants before our departure.

We discovered a local fisherman’s prawn trap – drawn from the water into the trunk of a tree – that had been trampled beneath the foot of a Borneo pygmy elephant.

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And then two more signs of passing elephants: crushed vegetation along the riverbank and the aroma of freshly-turned mud lingering in the air.

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Had the elephants gone into the oil palm plantations? Did the recent heavy rains influence their need for visiting the river?

We asked the villagers if they’d seen any elephants, calling out “nenek?” from our boat and flapping open palms by our ears. Although it directly translates to ‘grandmother’ in the Malay language, many locals refer to their Borneo pygmy elephants as nenek.

We then searched areas teeming with elephant food sources, such as flowering hyacinths, tropical fruits and tall riverbank grasses. 

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On the final day of navigating the Kinabatangan River, we got caught in a cold and windy downpour. Although we tried to maintain our excitement, our faith was fading. (Okay, I admit, there was a moment when I covered my entire body with a flimsy rain parka, closed my eyes and called out to my riverboat seat mate “I’m going to my happy place now”).

But suddenly Mincho got word of a sighting thirty minutes upriver – and we were recharged to continue, ready to take on the three-inch blood-sucking leeches, colossal water monitor lizards and even angry, storm-brewing Zeus himself. We’d been waiting for days – nay, weeks? months? our entire lives? – for the opportunity to see elephants in the wild.

And there they were – more magnificent than we had dreamed – a herd of over 50 Borneo pygmy elephants.

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Before our eyes, these gentle animals emerged from the darkness of the rainforest, crossed the Menangul Creek, and gathered together in a clearing to feed on fresh vegetation.

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In the beauty of this pure experience, it didn’t matter that it was raining, we were cold, our camera equipment was wet or that twenty-foot crocodiles thrived in these shadowy waters. We were captivated by Borneo pygmy elephants, grateful for the rare opportunity to observe such a large herd in the wild.

In silence we watched them for over an hour, blissfully photographing and filming them gently flapping their ears, lifting grass with their dexterous trunks and even feeding their young.

And for just a few magical moments, they let us be one of them.


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Learn all about Borneo pygmy elephants and join an upcoming Terra Incognita ecotour for a chance to see these beautiful giants in the wild yourself.

Check out a double feature of World’s Wildest Encounters episodes on Thursday September 9th at 8PM ET/PT.

Photo and Video Credits: Jodi Kendall, taken on a Terra Incognita Ecotour