KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) -- Borneo's pygmy elephants may be descendants of an extinct Javan elephant race, saved by chance by an 18th century ruler, according to a new study released Thursday.
The study suggests that a small number of opposite-sex elephants can produce a thriving progeny of thousands if left undisturbed on an island, giving fresh hope to conservationists trying to protect nearly extinct species of large mammals.
"If proven, this fascinating story would demonstrate that very small populations of large mammals can be saved from the brink of extinction (simply by) moving a few individuals, from a seemingly doomed population, to a different and safer habitat," the study published in the Sarawak Museum Journal says.
Study co-author Junaidi Payne said the Sultan of Java in Indonesia in the 18th century likely sent some pygmy elephants as gifts to the Sultan of Sulu in the Philippines. The Sultan of Sulu at some point apparently shipped them to Borneo and abandoned them there for unknown reasons.
"There are a number of historical records of elephants shipped between various places in Asia by rulers as gifts to impress others," Payne told The Associated Press.
Borneo pygmy elephants, which are genetically distinct from other subspecies, grow less than about 8 feet compared to about 10 feet in height of Asian ale elephants.
They also have babyish faces, large ears and longer tails. They are more rotund and less aggressive.
The pygmy elephants in Java were extinct by the end of the 18th century, but the few that were brought to Borneo thrived, the study found.
Historically, Borneo never had any elephants and the origins of pygmy elephants - a distinct subspecies of its mainland Asian cousin - remained shrouded in mystery until now.
Borneo is a large island shared by Indonesia, Malaysia and the sultanate of Brunei. It is separated by at least 250 miles of sea from Java, the main island in Indonesia. Sulu is much farther to the east.
Payne said 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.
"And that may be what happened in practice here," said Payne, who works for the global conservation group World Wildlife Fund.
There are about 1,000 pygmy elephants in the wild in Borneo today, mostly in the Malaysian state of Sabah.
"If they came from Java, this fascinating story demonstrates the value of efforts to save even small populations of certain species, often thought to be doomed," said Christy Williams, coordinator of WWF's Asian elephant and rhino program.
Augustine Tuuga, assistant director of the Sabah Wildlife Department, said the study confirms what many conservationists have long believed - that a small number of animals can flourish into large herds even though they may have multiplied by inbreeding.
"My own feeling is that as long as there is no continous hunting and there is no problem about diseases their numbers will multiply," he said.