Sunday, 15 December 2013


Pygmy Elephants - the book - is out! It's available to buy on Amazon and will be on the CFZ Cryptoshop shortly.

For US (and Italy) online sales, see here.

At the time of writing (March 2014) there's a special offer via the "Bloggo" (blog) of Pygmy Elephants publishers CFZ - yours for a tenner, via Pay Pal. But hurry, hurry while this offer lasts!

For those of you still with an attachment to buying books in an actual shop with cash, a few copies of Pygmy Elephants are available to buy, from a human being into whose hand you can press said cash, at these outlets in London.

The Butterfly Farm near Stratford-Upon-Avon also told me they planned to stock Pygmy Elephants in their gift shop.

Last time I checked, there were at least two copies on sale (at a discount) at the Big Green Bookshop and Freedom Bookshop, both in London.

Pygmy Elephants - back cover text

Since the dawn of the twentieth century – and possibly earlier – reports came from the deep forests of Africa of "pygmy elephants" as little as five feet (1.52m) tall at the shoulder.

There were pygmy elephant sightings, and alleged pygmy elephant skulls and skins were sent to Europe's museums. There were even some living elephants of the pygmy species Loxodonta pumilio on display in zoos. Circus showman PT Barnum had pygmy elephants in his menagerie, and pygmy elephant sightings – with photos and film footage - continued into the 1980s.

The author travelled to India to interview eyewitnesses to kallana – the mystery five-feet tall elephant whose name translates as the "stone elephant" because it scrambles with such agility over rocks. This book includes photos of kallana never before reproduced outside India.

And research for this book uncovered pygmy elephant skulls that had lain forgotten in a museum store for over half a century.

This investigation also takes in the confusing differences between the known species of modern African elephant, and possible hybrid elephants. The pygmy elephants, it turns out, may not be all that they seem…

All this, and a mystery tree crab too!


Front and back cover!

This is the final front and back cover of Pygmy Elephants - its publication is imminent. Its publication date will be known very soon, with details of where to buy it. Watch this space!

Friday, 22 November 2013

Second proof is ready, index all but done, availability by Christmas looking likely

I've finished the second - and possibly final - proof of Pygmy Elephants, and I'm merging my corrections with those of my proofreader, a zoology graduate and former professional indexer.

The index is done, but it needs some savage cuts. So names for different types of elephants in local African languages have to go: "m'paa" and "n'zerre" will regrettably not feature in the index. My favourite index entries that will (hopefully) make it into the final version are "Caesar, Julius - disparaging of war elephants" and "tapir - fossil tapir skull misidentified as elephant's".

Julius Caesar had a low opinion of war elephants as they took too long to train, in his opinion, while the great comparative anatomist and zoologist Baron Georges Cuvier, in one several works on the bones of fossil and extant elephants, concluded that a fossil skull identified as that of a prehistoric elephant was that of a "big tapir."

You'll have to buy the book to find out more. My publisher assures me that there are more than likely to be copies available in time for Christmas, postage permitting, with a bit of last-minute pre-Christmas guerrilla marketing. The book launch party, which promises to be a bit of a wild one as it's been so long since I've thrown any kind of party, will have to wait till beyond the New Year, simply because of the impossibility of getting any kind of venue for it this close to Christmas.

Mammoths also feature in Pygmy Elephants, including several varieties of pygmy mammoths, and some populations of mammoths that were possibly shrinking over successive generations. Shown here is a conventionally-sized woolly mammoth painted on the shutter of a shop in Middlesex Street, London E1, part of parade of shops with Ice Age fauna. If it were to scale, it would be about the height of some of the pygmy mammoths, although the proportions would probably be different. And not all of the pygmy mammoths would have been woolly.

Photo copyright Matt Salusbury, mammoth image copyright the artist

Monday, 28 October 2013

Anomalous elephants

Karl Shuker's excellent blog covers some of the mythical beasts and anomalous elephants I mention in the Pygmy Elephants book, out soon. There's a whole section on them in Chapter 1.

There's a baku (also spelt "bakua") a mythical Japanese nightmare-eating animal possibly based on a tapir, here.

And there are white (or pink) elephants, and - from Ta'ng Dynasty China - black-skinned, pink-tusked elephants. As I note in Pygmy Elephants, Asian elephants who work on the parades circuit in the hot August sun in India often have a blackened, sunburnt appearance (I've seen one), while the ivory of African forest elephants has a greyish-pink tinge compared to that of savannah elephants. The pink tinge was used to trace the origin of suspect illegal ivory shipments.

And above is a photo of magnificent - and entirely fantastic - elephant squid in Hanbury Street, in Shoreditch, London - notorious haunt of art students. It appears to be an African savannah elephant squid. Photo: copyright Matt Salusbury. I'm told the graffiti artist has only a "thin" copyright in law, as they are, after all, committing a criminal offence.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Corrected proof at the publishers now

The corrected first proof of Pygmy Elephants is at the publishers as I write, I'm expecting the second proof soon. Meanwhile, I'm getting the index ready, and putting together the text for the back cover. I've got a zoology graduate on standby to quickly read the second proof once I've finished with it. Here's the front cover already.

For reasons too complicated to go into, the photos below won't make the final version of the book. Here they are anyway.

All images copyright Matt Salusbury, cover image copyright Matt Salusbury, drawing based on a photo copyright Sali Palode, used with his permission

Dionthere skull

Reconstruction of a stegodon (relative of an elephant) - approx 3.7 metres at the shoulder in life

Phiomia (skull, left at the top and reconstruction, right at the top) and Gomphotherium (skull immediately above, reconstruction right).

The description of M. Le Petit's "water elephant" - an alleged pygmy elephant which Le Petit claims to have seen in 1910 along the Temba-Mayi River in 'the Congo' has uncanny similarities to two very ancient prehistoric elephant ancestors - Phiomia and Gomphoterium. Both had an elongated head and a short trunk. However, they would need to have survived not just a few million years but tens of millions of years to still be around in the early twentieth century Congo. And while Phiomia was found in Egypt, Gomphoterium was a continent away in North America. And they both had distinctive and visible tusks in their lower jaws, which Le Petit doesn't mention. Phiomia was 1.4 metres tall, Gomphoterium was over two metres. Shown are scale models and their skulls. You'll have to read Pygmy Elephants for more on M. Le Petit's water elephants.

Adult bull Asian elephant on the left, adult bull African elephant on the right, with male African elephant calf, showing their sizes for comparison.

Monday, 30 September 2013

Proofreading is coming along nicely

Proofreading of the publisher's first draft of Pygmy Elephants is coming along nicely. I am almost done.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Kallana capture - more reports and an unhelpful Dr. Angstrom H. Troubador hoax

There's more emerging in both the English-language Kerali and Malayalam language on the alleged "kallana" pygmy elephant captured near Paruthpally in February. It seems to take a while for news reports to make their way to a place in the rankings where you have a chance of finding them. The sheer size of India (and its cyberspace), with a population of over a billion, may have something to do with this.

There's a Malayalam news report showing footage of the elephant in captivity, and an interview with wildlife photographer Sali Palode and Kani tracker Malan Kani. There's also Jain Angadi's 2010 photo of a male kallana back up on India Nature Watch (the site was down for a while, then up again minus its photos.)

Another Malayalam news report has the footage of the kallana before capture, with a scale superimposed on it showing it to be just over five feet high at its highest point - the apex of its humped back. There's also a studio interview with Sali and another who I couldn't identify, as I can't read Malayalam. The report also has an extract from a press conference with a Kerala government official who mentions the English words "chief wildlife warden" - he's probably a senior Forest Department wildlife official.

The New India Express article Of Myths and Legends: the kallana story, also from February, quotes E A Jayson, a senior wildlife biologist at Kerala Forest Research Institute (KFRI), as saying the chance of kallana exisiting is not great, due to the lack of evidence. Kerala Forests Department's V Gopinath, Principal Chief Conservator (Wildlife), states in the article that "What we have found was a young malnourished male elephant. It is a six-year-old calf, not the pygmy as claimed by tribespeople."

Former KFRI research scientist K M Jayahari claimed in the article to have seen the creature in 2003, and expresses the opinion that it's not a calf, based on its behaviour, but admits he only saw one individual, not a herd. There's also an unnamed WWF India official who says we "shouldn't brush aside" reports of the kallana, and that that Kani have been right about wildlife in the past.

An English-language Kerali blog, probably translating Malayalam news sources, claimed that Kerala Forest Minister Shri Ganesh Kumar had ordered the setting up of a committee to investigate kallana and establish its identity. A ministerial announcement is expected (eventually).

Enter Dr. Angstrom H. Troubador, in what appears to be the first kallana hoax, in a field that had been remarkably free of hoaxers and the preserve of admirably sincere people up to now.

The Internet Chronicle article on kallana - just before the capture at Paruthypally - claimed that "a recent expedition led by Dr. Angstrom H. Troubador, an expert pachyderm biologist, returned with conclusive genetic evidence proving the ‘Kallana’ are, in fact, a distinct species of dwarf elephant."

The Internet Chronicle's web address is - the .su domain denotes the Soviet Union, defunct since 1990, which should send alarm bells ringing. As should the ridiculous name. And for those still in doubt, the Internet Chronicle lists Cesse Poole, Dr Oy Vay, and the late Colonel Muammar al Gaddafi among its other contributors. Neither would any serious biologist call themselves a "pachyderm biologist" – the term "pachyderm" describes a no-longer accepted order of mammals – everything from pigs, rhinos, hippos and elephants – that is no longer in use.

Dr Angstrom H. Troubador turns up as an expert – a cancer oncologist or nuclear safety specialist or whatever, all over the web, with reports originating at The Internet Chronicle. To its credit, even the normally shockingly uncritical blogosphere is full of comments like "Is this real?" and "Looks fake to me" alongside Dr Angstrom H. Troubador's supposed pronouncements on the discovery of mummified dinosaurs, Fukishima nuclear fallout heating up the Pacific, the death by cannabis overdose of "Chumlee" Russell from the TV show Pawn Stars, etc. (No, I've not heard of Chumlee Russell either.)

The much more legitimate New India Express report refers to "rumours of DNA profiling being done on the captured elephant to confirm that it is not a separate sub-species". This may originate from The Internet Chronicle's Dr Angstrom H. Troubador hoax, fuelled by the actual news report that a blood sample had been taken from the captive elephant, and media commentary back in 2005 when the dead female kallana was found about what a good idea it would be had a DNA sample been taken.

Pygmy Elephants is with the publishers now and I'm reading the first proofs. I will find a way to include the above in the final version.

Monday, 16 September 2013

Working on the Pygmy Elephant proofs now, and ISBN

The first proofs for Pygmy Elephants came back from the publisher much sooner than expected, I am working on them now, and will shortly be mobilising my support networks of proofreaders to cast their eyes over it.

Meanwhile, there is an ISBN for Pygmy Elephants already - ISBN 976-1-905723-40-9

Monday, 2 September 2013

Elephantulus gaffs

My publisher assures me Pygmy Elephants will be out in time for Christmas. I can expect the proofs in about a month.

Meanwhile, a couple of revisions and additions have been agreed.

There's one photo of an alleged pygmy elephant from Gabon in the 1950s whose copyright owner I couldn't trace. A global expert on copyright has assured my that my unsuccessful attempts to trace the French copyright owner constitute "due diligence", and that it's an anonymous work and I can include it in the book as such. So there's another photo that'll go in.

Prof. Sukumar Raman in Bangalore emailed me a short comment about the elephant captured in Kerala said - by some - to be a pygmy, which will be included.

And thanks to the "wild talents" for librarianship of Richard Muirhead, I have a new, short section on "Thai water elephants," tiny, fist-sized shrivelled bodies of miniscule elephants said to have venemous tusks. This is nonsense of course. They are almost certainly "gaffs," fake monsters made from the body parts of real dead animals. In this case they are thought to be elephant shrews (one genus of African elephant shrews, aka sengis, aka jumping shrews) is Elephantulus.

Shown here are my "artist's impressions" of Elephantulus gaffes passed off as miniature Thai "water elephants", and their X-rays.

Drawings copyright Matt Salusbury

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Today I sent Pygmy Elephants to the publisher

Pygmy Elephants on a memory stick was finally posted to the publisher, CFZ Press, earlier today. Hurrah! The next stage will be checking the proofs when the publisher sends them, and Lars Thomas's foreword arriving. Watch for updates on when the book's coming out.

Shown above (without the captions not yet added) is the identification chart of alleged recently living pygmy elephants, compared to their conventionally-sized relatives, from Pygmy Elephants.

Monday, 1 July 2013

Fossil pygmy elephant identification chart

I've just finished one of the two "Pygmy Elephant Identification Charts" that will go in the back of the Pygmy Elephants book. This is the chart of fossil pygmy elephants, stegodons and mammoths, before the captions were added. You'll have to buy the book to see it full-sized and annotated. With thanks to Russell Hawley and to Georgios Lyras, who gave me permission to reproduce the images of pygmy mammoths at the top left and centre of the top row respectively.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Capture of alleged "kallana" pygmy elephant

An animal described as a "calf elephant, which is purportedly a 'pygmy'" was "tethered" (captured) in February by Kerala Forest Department (KFD) vets in the forest in Paruthypally, in the Trivandrum District of the South Indian state of Kerala.

The capture was covered in The Hindu newspaper of Feb 7 this year and there's also a Malayalam language TV broadcast, which has a fleeting few seconds of a slightly strange-looking elephant moving in the forest, with not much to indicate the scale.

While the traditions of the local Kani "tribals" who live in the Peppara forest describe "kallana" - an agile pygmy elephant five feet in height or less, the Kerala wildlife officials were so convinced that the elephant was nothing of the sort that they "dismissed" a demand for DNA samples to be taken from the elephant. V. Gopinath, Chief Wildlife Warden, Kerala, was quoted as saying "kallana" said "kallana" was "a myth" that "existed in the folklore of tribespeople alone." Another KFD official described the elephant as being a six-year-old calf.

The TV broadcast has a short interview with local wildlife photographer Sali Palode, and shows photos by Sali of his 2005 and 2010 sightings of kallana, including the corpse of an alleged female kallana that he found by a lake in 2005. (This appears in my forthcoming Pygmy Elephants book. The licence I bought for reproduction of his photo doesn't extend to web, but there's a watermarked version of this photo on Sali's website. The Malayalam TV report also has photos by Benny Ajantha and Jain Angadi, who were with Sali when he made his 2010 "kallana" sighting.

There's also a photo by Sali of a strange-looking elephant head-on in The Hindu's report. It's more convincing than any of the other kallana photos I've seen. The Hindu article is sceptical - more so than previously - and uses the word "pygmy" in quotation marks throughout. The article points out that the calf elephant was in a bad way - it "had developed infections" and may have been abandoned by the herd.

When I interviewed Sali in 2011, his agent Balan Madhavan (who acted as interpreter) was emphasising the need for Sali to collect evidence of "kallana" for DNA analysis - dung, hairs and discarded skin from the soles of the feet are the most common bits you find - and the "demand" for DNA samples to be taken from the captured elephant calf at Paruthypally came from Sali. The report adds that "blood samples of the animal have also been collected, which could be used for settling the controversy."

I haven't been able to find out what happened to the elephant since February, or anything about any results from the blood sample, but I am on the case - I have asked the contacts I made in South India, including Balan. I am also looking for a Malayalam speaker to translate the TV report for me. A very early start for me, getting up in time to catch people in Kerala and in Bangalore by phone, is imminent. If I get any answers, I will squeeze this into the Pygmy Elephants book just in time for it to go to press.

A Kerala Forest and Wildlife Department sign - this one's from Neyyar-Peppara. Picture: copyright Matt Salusbury

Borneo elephant not really pygmy after all, admits Malaysian NGO

I've been suggesting for some time that the term "Borneo pygmy elephant" was incorrect, and started by the wildlife tourism industry.
The website of the Malaysiia-based wildlife and conservation NGO Hutan has an article (no date given) titled Pygmy or Just Borneo Elephant?, which opens by asking, is there really such a thing as a "Borneo pygmy elephant?" This referred to a 2003 WWF-Malaysia press release sent out on the occasion of a paper being published that identified the elephants of Borneo as part of a new sub-species. The press release used the term "Borneo pygmy elephants," which seems to have "caught on." Hutan says the elephants of Borneo should correctly be referred to as "Borneo elephants."

Monday, 27 May 2013

Fortean Traveller - Kerali kallana capers

This article first appeared in Fortean Times FT 301, May 2013. (It's "Fortean Traveller" no. 85)

The south Indian state of Kerala is officially "God's own country", although I heard that Kerala Tourism appropriated the "God" phrase from a slogan they'd taken a fancy to after seeing it over the stall of a small Latin American country at a travel fair. In March 2011 took a couple of weeks off work and went to Kerala to investigate reports in the local English language press of kallana, the alleged pygmy elephant of that region.

One the attractions of this expedition was that Neyyar-Peppara Wildlife Sanctuary – reputed home to kallana - wasn’t exactly at the ends of the earth, or only reachable after months of trekking through wild and inhospitable jungle. Kallana’s alleged habitat was just 56km from the state capital and the international airport at Trivandrum. It was the equivalent of having a mystery animal in the South Downs just outside Brighton. Compared to the cryptids supposedly living in the wilds of Mongolia or half way up the Himalayas, kallana was right under our noses.

So I found myself in Indian's most laid-back state capital, Thiruvananthapuram, so good they named it twice. "Thiruvananthapuram" was a bit of a mouthful for the British when they moved into the then Kingdom of Travancore, so they adopted "Trivandrum", a three-syllable, anglicised version of city's name. The name means "Holy Snake City", after the huge statue of Lord Vishnu reclining on the serpent Anantha inside the main Padmanabhaswamy temple downtown. I only saw a drawing of its interior - like many Hindu temples in India, it's "closed to non-devotees."

It being India, getting hold of my star interviewee and kallana eyewitness Sali Palode proved complicated. He wasn't answering his agent's phone calls. Sali's non-availability gave me the opportunity to go upstate to briefly see some young captive elephants at Kodanad Elephant Camp, a facility for rescued elephants being trained for work in forestry and tourism. It was good to get up close to them, and to compare young conventionally-sized elephants with photos I'd seen of “kallana.”

A young captive elephant and his mahout in the Periyar River, Kodanad, Kerala

I naively imagined that elephants approaching would make the ground shake with their great feet, like something out of Godzilla. But as I stood on the banks of the Periyar River, watching the younger elephants being bathed by their mahouts, the only indication that another elephant - a tusker who must have been over eight feet high (almost 2 ½ metres) – was right behind me and gracefully advancing down the riverbank towards me, was when his mahout put his hand on my shoulder and politely asked me if I could get out of the way. The eight-foot tusker moved completely silently.

I was also mistaken in my belief that young elephants loved going into the river for a bath. They absolutely hated it. The mahouts somehow managed to subdue these beasts - that could have crushed them with ease - just by gently pulling their tails.

Down the road from the Kodanad was the sad little Kerala Forest Department (KFD) zoo for "rescued" animals, which was, frankly, a disgrace. Just down the road from that, however, the finishing touches were being put on its replacement, a spacious park with big enclosures where herds of animals could run in a near-wild state. Some of the deer had been moved in, and the chief warden of the "rescue centre" said its first rescued elephant was due to move in within a few months.

The warden, with some pride, asked me if I'd spotted another Kerali pygmy, "our own dwarf muntjac deer," as if his herd of little dog-sized, short-antlered, fanged, barking muntjac deer were the most exotic animals on the planet. I had to break it to him that, while muntjac may be native to Kerala, they were introduced to the grounds of English stately homes some time ago, from which they escaped and have now become so common they're widely regarded as vermin. To this the warden replied, with a wry smile, "That is the consequence of your folly!" He was presumably referring to the British conquest of India, and Britain's karma for this series of atrocities is being overrun by Indian muntjac.

Sali Palode's agent Balan Madhavan had finally tracked him down. I met them both at the Trivandrum Press Club. It was a noisy interview, as retired journalists - wandering in and out of the reading room where we talked - would interrupt to greet Balan. Sali was shy and retiring with short grey hair and glasses, and spoke quietly in Malayalam, with Balan's deep, more confident voice, interpreting for me in English.

A drawing teacher for the past 25 years, Sali taught at a Malayalam-medium school near the mountain town of Palode in the hills not far from Trivandrum, on the edge of the forest near where he grew up. From an early aged Sali would trek in the forest with his father or with friends form the local Kani "tribal" community. He eventually managed to borrow some photographic equipment and take photos of the wildlife he saw. He's since won over 70 awards, but Balan said all the money Sali's made from photography has been ploughed back into the kit, like the huge Canon lens I saw him use when we later went into the forest together.

Sali Palode at work with his camera in Neyar-Peppara Wildlife Sanctuary

Where did Sali first hear about kallana, I asked. From the "tribals". It was "25 years back, on a trek to the Agustya mountains, on the top." There Sali and his Kani guide Mallan Kani saw "small elephant droppings" that "belong to kallana."

Since that encounter a quarter of a century earlier, Sali and Mallan have been looking for kallana. Sali described how he first "got a picture in 2005" of a kallana, one of a group of four, (FT 252;42-47) and also photographed what he says is a dead adult female kallana by a lake. Kallana's stomping grounds are in the Neyyar-Peppara reserve, among the Agustya Mala hills, which have become a Hindu pilgrimage centre, and Sali says kallana is moving down from the higher altitudes due to "human intervention" on the hills. The animal is agile, and climbs uphill very fast, a feat which Sali has seen himself.

Sali pointed out that his kallana photos show "long limbs" and that "the skin is wrinkled", which he says is evidence that they're adults. What convinced Sali of that adulthood of the "tusker" male he photographed in 2010 were "skin details… long tail, really hairy". And then there were the tusks – certainly more developed that the ones I'd seen on younger elephants at Kodonad.

The search for one cryptid usually throws up some other unexpected mystery animals as well. Sali said a Kani elder had shown him another Kerali cryptid, a purple-bodied tree crab that lives in "gaps on trees". The Kani use this mystery tree crab as "medicine, for the ears". Balan mentioned another Kerali cryptid – the pogeyan, the "clouded leopard", an alleged smoky brown-grey leopard without spots, dwelling in the far north of Kerala, in grassland and "evergreens" of the Munnar region and moving in and out of the tea plantations of Malabar. He knows one forest officer who's seen a pogeyan.

"Warden Sharma" the Trivandrum District Chief Wildlife Warden, after an explanation from Balan of what we wanted to do, gave permission for me to enter the Neyyar-Peppara sanctuary, but only for the day, and only if accompanied by Sali and his guide, Mallan Kani.

Next day I got up very early for a possibly inadvisable 40km trip by motorized rickshaw turbo milk float, which meant I arrived ten minutes late for our rendezvous with Sali at the hill town of Vithura. As we passed a shiny suburban showroom for the new Indian-built Tato Nano economy car, my rickshaw driver said with disdain that his vehicle exceeded the 70kph maximum speed of a Tata Nano.

Sali Palode (left) and Malan Kani (right) in Neyyar-Peppara sanctuary, at the spot where they found the dead kellana in 2005

Soon Sali and I stood before the green and red sign of the Kerala Forest Department at the entrance to Neyar-Peppara Wildlife Sanctuary, where Sali's guide Mallan Kani was waiting. Mallan was a more outgoing character, and he and Sali had a Malayam-language Laurel and Hardy camaraderie thing going, as they marched off ahead through the thick forest at a brisk pace I could barely keep up with. "Faster!" Mallan would occasionally call to me. They had to wait for me once when I got my ear impaled on a dangling thorn.

We went through paddies and low-impact cashew and rubber plantations, and past an anti-elephant trench and Kani houses with solar panels. Then uphill and into deep forest. The trail was steep and narrow, and single-file. Mallan said it was an elephant track. It was difficult enough for humans, only the piles of elephant dung – with mushrooms growing out of it – told us these were elephant paths.

The forest was humid and I was sweating buckets by now. My heart was racing – it could be the altitude. Brilliant blue and white butterflies flitted around us, and there were biting ants that drew blood if you were foolish enough to sit down for long. Strange hooting whistling laughing birds called to us, one sounded like Mutley out of Wacky Races cursing.

Mallan took us on a steep downward descent to the spot where they found the body of the female elephant in 2005, by a lake with the Agusthya Mala in the distance behind. Then Mallan suddenly said, “Gaur! Guar!” although Sali and I saw and heard nothing, and he then disappeared into the forest, after getting Sali and I into cover behind some trees. Sali took out his massive Canon lens and screwed it into his camera, and crouched in the trees just ahead of me at the forest's edge.

Herd of gaur (wild Indian bison) stampede past

Ten minutes later came a thundering of hooves, and curly-horned gaur – wild bison - in a big herd appear to charge straight at us. Sali got up and started running. I decided to stay put, reasoning that the trees would stop them charging directly at me. They veered to the left and charged uphill – beards, calves and all, about 20 in total. Sali was running after the herd, camera at the ready. I missed most of it, having got tangled in a thicket. Following in the wake of the gaur came a cloud of stinging flies. Sali ripped a branch off a bush, and beat them away. Mallan re-appeared.

It seems he'd flushed out for the gaur for our benefit. Mallan's forestry skills were impressive. Some say that “kallana” are just young elephants playing a short distance from a herd that’s unseen and close by, but if the herd were close by, Mallan would know about it.

We were finished by 11.30. We stopped at the next Kani settlement. Plastic chairs were produced for Sali and I, and with a little bamboo ladder, one of the Kani neighbours went up a tree to bring down fresh coconuts for lunch, a rare privilege as access to "tribal" areas is usually restricted. Sali and I bade farewell to Mallan at the Forest Dept. post by the sanctuary's entrance. It was still lunch hour when two short bus rides later I was back in Trivandrum.

Sali and Balan have been tracking kallana for at least a decade, and had only three encounters and one dodgy sighting of its dung. The chances of me tripping over kallana – or even a conventional elephant – in the thick, thick forest, were never great.

Back in Trivandrum, I encountered statues of what were described as “unicorns” or “elephant dragons” – horse-bodied, eagle-clawed beasts with elephants’ heads, often associated with a small elephant that accompanies them.

Some grasped their trunks in their talons, some had trunks reaching down towards considerably smaller “baby elephants” whose trunks reached up to theirs. Some had small crests or tufts on their heads. Some had multiple tusks growing out of the sides of their mouth where their teeth should be, like the mouthparts of a monster prawn.

There were "elephant dragons" in the Maharaja of Travancore’s eighteenth-century palace, and in the huge temple next door. The palace and temple guides told me the "elephant dragons" were carved in the late eighteenth century, during Travancore’s zenith. I was told the makara are not exclusive to India, and there's been little research into their origins. Makara feature fleetingly in Bernard Heuvelmans' In the Wake of the Sea Serpents, but as sea creatures. The makara in Trivandrum, and on the coat of arms of the neighbouring State of Karnataka – were definitely land animals.

I also spent 24 hours in Bangalore, to see Asian elephant expert Prof. Raman Sukumar at the Indian Institute of Science, a university campus so vast it has its own airstrip.

Asian elephant expert Prof. Sukumar Raman

"Don't, whatever you do, come on the 31st of March, it's the end of the financial year," advised Prof. Sukumar. The Union Government in New Delhi demands all taxes are paid by the end of this date on pain of considerable penalties. The last day of the financial year is bedlam. Most banks are open all night for receipt of government revenues, still mostly done in cash. Sukumar has to reconcile the accounts of the IISc's Institute of Ecology he heads - by the end of a very long day. So we met on April Fool's Day instead.

Prof. Sukumar Raman is the expert on Asian elephants, but like every head of department he had a lot of admin to deal with. As well as having to sign leave requests for departmental staff during our interview, Sukumar was interrupted by a bizarre marketing call from a mobile company, following an inquiry about billing for SIM cards. It turned out the two SIM cards they were talking about were “for elephants” in radio collars awaiting deployment on elephants in West Bengal. He told me he had a hard time explaining to the mobile company that he didn’t know the mobile numbers for the SIM cards, as they were radio-tracking devices for elephants, and no, they didn't want free weekend calls...

Sali Palode's website has his photos of kallana, and of the tree crab (the latter on the "Insects" page).

This is an edited extract from Pymgy Elephants – on the track of the world's biggest dwarfs, published by CFZ Press later this year.

© Matt Salusbury 2013

Friday, 17 May 2013

Pygmy elephant of Spanish Guinea was "incarnation of the devil"

The translation from Spanish of the 1962 report of a "pygmy elephant" in "Spanish Guinea" (now Equatorial Guinea) is in. My translator felt that it had been badly translated into Spanish from another language - at a guess, I would say French.

The report, from La vida animal en la Guinea EspaƱola (Aurelio Basilio, Instituto de Estudios Africanos, Madrid, 1962) says the pygmy elephant of Spanish Guinea was known by the "natives" as Esemasas, in order to distinguish it from the common one [common elephant], Nsok." Like alleged pygmy elephants from other parts of West Africa, "They consider the 'pygmy elephant' more fierce and scary than the larger ones; and this is why it is so difficult to kill them, and this has led them to see the 'pygmy elephant' as an incarnation of the devil, and they think that when a Esamasas sees a hunter pointing at him with a lethal weapon, it suddenly leaves its elephant shape and transforms into a human."

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

"Pygmy Pachyderms" updated

After having talked again to Dr Victoria Herridge of the Natural History Museum, London, I have updated the "Pygmy Pachyderms" article from Fortean Times 251, to reflect her correction of my misunderstanding of what she'd told me back in 2007.

Borneo elephants in the wild

Borneo elephants, photos copyright Carl Marshall, used with permission

Carl Marshall of the CFZ very kindly let me use his recent photos of two Borneo elephants, taken during a research expedition on the Kinabatangan River, Sabah (Malaysian Borneo). He was able to get really close to them by boat. He estimated that the bull elephant was seven feet tall. The Borneo elephants are known somewhat dubiously as "pygmy elephants".

The photo shows how big the Borneo elephants are, and also shows just how hard it is to get a clear view of something as big as an elephant, as they're hidden in thick vegetation for much of their lives. Most sightings of "pygmy elephants" in Africa and in Asia have been in and around rivers, as that's about the only place you'll get to take a look at them. In the thick forest they're hidden.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

"Specimen 2980" small enough and light enough to hold in your arms

Photo: copyright Lars Thomas, used with permission, all rights reserved

Lars Thomas of the University of Copenhagen kindly sent me this photo of himself holding "Specimen 2980", the skull of a female elephant. Even though the photo shows Lars, a Dane, holding a skull, I will refrain from attempting to make amusing comparisons with Hamlet!

The skull is of an elephant shot by big game hunter Edmond Blanc in 1955 in South Cameroon, working on commission for a wealthy industrialist who collected specimens for the University's Natural History Museum. (There's also another - similar - skull of a female elephant from the same heard, 2981.) They were labelled "dwaergelefant" - "dwarf elephant."

Lars told me earlier that the skull is small enough and light enough that you can put your arms around it and lift it up. This compares with the the Museum's skulls of conventionally-sized adult forest elephants, which Lars says you can't even lift off the ground on your own. (These bigger skulls are on loan to the city's zoological gardens, where they're on display in a glass case, so no photos of these for comparison, I'm afraid.)

Based on his analysis of the skull and in particular the teeth, Lars told me that "one is definitely an adult, although very small in stature" and concluded that in one of these, the third set of molars was starting to appear "which would mean it is was at least 20 years old, probably around 25."

The Natural History Museum London's elephant and mammoth expert Prof. Adrian Lister felt the skulls were probably a juvenile or sub-adult, based on (he readily admitted) at a look at just some photos with an object next to them to give an idea of scale. Palaeontologist Dr Darren Naish of Southampton University told me these skulls were probably of juveniles, based on bones in the cheek not being fully fused yet.

My own view is that while it's probably not a pygmy elephant, there is good evidence for some sort of local "eco-type" or "clade" of smaller forest elephant in South Cameroon.

It seems no one had studied these skulls since they were delivered to Copenhagen over half a century ago, until I drew them to Lars' attention last year.

There's also the preserved skin of one of Copenhagen's Cameroon "dwarf" elephants, although it's under lock and key and inaccessible at the moment. Lars regrets to inform me that the specimens are "very low down on the DNA-lab priority list, so I have no idea when anybody will have time to look at those."

I also recently received permission to reproduce in the Pygmy Elephants book photos of a young elephant with "precocious tusk growth" from Uganda in the 1950s - the photographer Dr Clive Spinage, still very much alive, says there were forest elephant/savannah elephant hybrids in the area at the time", so it could have been one of these. You'll have to wait till Pygmy Elephants comes out to see the photo though, as with the photos of Borneo elephants in the wild kindly sent to me by Carl Marshall, recently returned from an expedition to Sabah.

Sunday, 31 March 2013

Ege University's "Syrian elephant"

Syrian elephant, Ege University Natural History Museum, used with permission

This is the "Syrian elephant" from the Natural History Museum of Ege University in Izmir, Turkey, the image is produced with their permission. (Thanks to Prof Dr Tanju Kaya, and to my Turkophone translator, who ticked the "no publicity" box.)

It shows the skeleton of a "Syrian elephant" from Karamanmarash in "Southeastern Turkey" (the majority Kurdish region of the country), and seems to be a reconstruction based on a partial skeleton (the dark bits) with the remainder of the bones (lighter) worked out from the extant remains. As my translator is a much better linguist than he is a zoologist, I'm having a very slow conversation with Prof Dr Kaya about how old the elephant was at the time of death, how tall the skeleton is, and what age the skeleton is in hundreds or thousands of years. Updates will be provided when I get answers to these. (The museum's website says the skeleton is 4m high, which would make it equivalent to a large adult male Indian elephant, up there with some of the bigger Sri Lankan males.)

The Syrian elephant, which was an Asian elephant variety that lived in what's now Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, was the war elephant of choice for the Egyptians, the successor states of Alexander the Great's empire and for the Romans. Capturing Syrian elephants for war meant not having to go all the way to India for very expensive imported war elephants and even more expensive mahouts. I've seen the Syrian elephant described as a sub-species, Elephas maximus asuras (Ege University goes with this designation) although this seems as far as I could find out, unofficial and a little dodgy. I've heard various timelines for "E. maximus asurus", ranging from three million years ago to 2,000 years ago to as recently as 200BCE.

Some sources describe the Syrian elephant as slightly smaller than the mainstream Indian E. maximus, which would make it easier to handle as a war animal. Some depictions in ancient art show the Syrian elephant as having slender, curving tusks, as in the Ege University skeleton, although I've yet to learn whether the tusks in this reconstruction are the original tusks found with the skeleton or conjectural.

Some, including Darren Naish in his Tetrapod Zoology blog have pointed out the similarity between the possibly slim-tusked Syrian elephant and the small elephant being led by Syrian emissaries in the tomb of Rekh-mi-re in ancient Egypt (my drawing of the elephant from photos of the tomb below. See also here for a recent photograph, although the frescoes have faded in recent years). Naish suggests that this doesn't show a pygmy elephant (or a baby elephant, as I suggest in the forthcoming Pygmy Elephants book,) but is an attempt to draw an out-of-scale Syrian elephant.

More detail to follow.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

"Pygmy elephants" poisoned

There has been a lot of talk in the news media about "pygmy elephants" being poisoned in Borneo. Numerous friends and relations contacted me in a state of some urgency, some quite late at night to tell me about this.

While ten elephants in Borneo have undoubtedly died from poisioning, even the World Wildlife Fund, which seems to be on the side of the sustainable wildlife tourism industry in the bit of Malaysia that's on the island of Borneo, admitted some time ago on its website that the "pygmy elephants" of Borneo were only six inches (15cm) shorter than the average height of Asian elephants on the mainland and among the nearest populations on islands. The Sumatran elephant, for example, is recognised as a sub-species that's one of the smallest in Asia, but it's about the same size as the Borneo elephant and no one is claiming the Sumatran elephant is a pygmy. It starts at around 6ft 6 inches in height at the shoulder for a fully-grown adult

I came across a comparison chart on a World Wildlife Fund site a few years ago (I can't seem to find it online now but someone has reproduced it here). As you can see, the Borneo elephants aren't much smaller than mainland Asian elephants.

One of the foremost experts on fossil elephants and mammoths, who's also very good on living elephants, told me he'd been to Sabah (Malaysian Borneo) and pointed a laser rangefinder at at least one of the elephants there. He told me he couldn't determine any difference in height between them and other Asian elephants, based on the data from the rangefinder. You'll have to see the forthcoming Pygmy Elephants book to find out which expert this was. I can reveal that he went on record for the first time about this when he talked to me and later corresponded with me on the subject.

The problem is that "pygmy" and "dwarf" have never been properly defined.

The Guardian said that the Borneo elephant was recognised as a sub-species in 2003. While it was recognised as a unique and genetically distinct population at that time, isolated from other populations for a very long time (around 300,000 years) as far as I am aware the sub-species designation Elephas maximus borneensis is still unofficial.

Looking at some of the recent photos of the poisoned and dead Borneo elephants, you can see their characteristic big heads. Some of the photos also show some Malaysians standing next to a corpse.

I don't know what the average height is for people from Sabah, but even assuming they're only five feet in height, that would make the dead adult elephant they're standing next to at least six or seven foot at the shoulder. The photo I found of the "dead adult elephant" being measured shows a different elephant to the - bigger - dead mother elephant, and seems to show a smaller individual, which may not be fully grown. Female Asian elephants - in India at least - start to have babies before they've finished growing, and they're still growing until around the age of 30.

My mum asked me what the survival chances were of the pitiful looking baby elephant next to the dead body of its mother. That depends largely on the availability of coconuts on Sabah. Elephant vet Dr Joseph Cheeran told me that very young elephants found lost and alone in the forest have a better chance of survival in the more tropical South India than in the north. That's because coconuts are readily available for free, and coconut milk closely mimics "fatty" elephant milk. I don't know if they have any tradition of hand-rearing baby elephants in Sabah, though. The elephants there are regarded as "wild" and never domesticated as far as I'm aware - confusing press reports on alleged illegal sales of Borneo elephants to zoos in China notwithstanding.

Monday, 28 January 2013

"Precocious Tusk Growth" and a provisional front cover

This is the - very provisional - front cover image for Pygmy Elephants. The CFZ's preferred house-style plural is "dwarfs" with an "s", so I will be going through the book changing all the examples of "dwarves" with a "v" - there aren't that many, fortunately.

In devising a subtitle for the book, my publisher Jon Downes of the CFZ and myself were both surprised to discover there is no synonym for "elephant" according to Jon's thesaurus. Jon suggested "world's smallest pachyderms", but I thought pachyderms might include rhinos or manatees or hyraxes or something. Jon sought "pachyderm" on a search engine (other search engines are available!) and found that it was an outmoded order that includes everything from elephants to pigs, so pygmy elephants would not be the world's smallest pachyderm by a long way!

The cover is awaiting approval from the photographer upon whose photo my sketch of the pygmy elephant is loosely based, there are - I believe - "moral rights" issues here, so we'll have to wait and see for a couple of weeks whether he feels it's good to go. I wouldn't want to do anything "disparaging to his honour or reputation" in the words of UK copyright law.

Meanwhile, I've got a translation from the German-language Zeitschrift der Kolner Zoo report on a 1980s sighting of - allegedly - herds of pygmy elephants in clearings near the River Yobe, Central African Republic. The witness said they came into the clearings to lick salt and other minerals on the ground. Thanks to my colleague Mike Holderness for the translation. He noted that the report was badly written in its original language.

I also tracked down some articles from Mammalia in French from the 1960s, in which naturalist Pierre Pfeffer expresses the opinion that there's no such thing as pygmy elephants, having looked at the evidence up to then.

Several screw-ups by the normally excellent British Library meant that I had to make three trips to this noble institution to see an article of one bloody page by C A Spinage, now Dr Clive Spinage, in Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London from 1958. After all that hassle, it was an article of one bloody page, but with a photo I didn't know about. This showed a clearly infant elephant in a group with other young elephants, and this elephant had much more developed tusks than its older peers.

I tracked down the photographer, Dr Clive Spinage, who is very much alive over half a century later and who gave me permission to reproduce the photo in the book. He also said in Uganda in the 1950, where he worked in wildlife conservation, there was "a number of herds of intermediate forest/bush elephant types" around.

Spinage's article on "Precocious Tusk Growth" is positively the last item I need to look up. There was said (by Bernard Heuvelmans) to be pygmy elephants "staying" in Antwerp Zoo, whose archives were transferred to the City of Antwerp's Felix Archives in 2009, but I've had a look at the archive catalogue and it's not organised in any way that's useable, and I don't fancy a Eurostar ride and a long weekend in Antwerp just on the off-chance that something turns up. I'll have to let it go.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Elefante enano in "Spanish Guinea"

The Spanish colony of Rio Muni in West Africa only came Spain's way as compensation for a territorial swap with the Portuguese in Latin America in 1810, and the Spanish were never that enthusiastic about the little territory, squashed up on the coast between French Gabon to the south and German (later French and British) Cameroon to the North. Serious efforts by the Spanish to develop the colony only started in the 1930s.

It only formally became "Spanish Guinea" in 1958, in a merger with the much less neglected coffee and cocoa-growing island colony of Ferdinando Poo just off the coast. Unimpressive though Spain's little African empire was, it was just big enough to contain - allegedly - a pygmy elephant.

The elefante enano (pygmy elephant) of what's now Equatorial Guinea was shot by a Spanish army captain in the 1950s, at a time when the colony was being formally prepared for independence. It was in the commune of Nsok, right on the border with Gabon.

It was written up in La Vida Animal in La Guinea Espanol, published in 1962 (front cover shown here), in a report of nearly two whole pages (longer than most reports of pygmy elephant shootings or sightings). I'm in the process of getting it translated and trying to track down and write to its publishers, the now probably defunct Instituto del Estudios Africanos in Madrid, with a view to reproducing Mr. H. Garcia's photo of Captain Chacorro posing next to the weird-looking smooth-skinned six-footer elephant he's just brought down.