The African pygmy elephant (Loxodonta pumilio, also known as Loxodonta fransseni) is an alleged diminutive variety of the African forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis).
African pygmy elephants are allegedly native to the rainforests of Central Africa: The Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Equatorial Guinea.
They live side by side with African forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis).
Their biological status remains a subject of controversy.
[Note: This article is about the African pygmy elephant, and not the so-called Borneo pygmy elephant (Elephas maximus borneensis), native to Borneo Island.]
Wildlife researchers recognize two distinct species of elephants (order Proboscidea; family Elephantidae) native to the African continent:
The African savanna elephant, also known as the African bush elephant (Loxodonta africana), and the African forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis).
The African pygmy elephant
The current expert consensus is that the African pygmy elephant is a diminutive variety of the African forest elephant.
Alleged eyewitnesses described the African pygmy elephant as standing about five feet at the shoulder, making them significantly smaller than the African forest elephant with a height range of 7 feet 10 inches to 9 feet 10 inches at the shoulder (for the bulls), and 5 feet 10 inches to 7 feet 10 inches for the females (Matt Salusbury, 2009).
In his Mysterious Creatures: A Guide to Cryptozoology, cryptozoologist George Eberhert (2002) claimed African pygmy elephants range from about 3 feet 8 inches to 6 feet 8 inches at the shoulder.
African pygmy elephants have dark reddish-brown to brownish-gray or black skin, according to the cryptozoologist. They also have flat faces and large roundish ears.
An alleged specimen about 5 feet 5 inches at the shoulders had tusks about 2 feet 2 inches long.
The African pygmy elephant is a cryptid
Zoologists and wildlife researchers know only very little about the African pygmy elephant.
The animal remain controversial due to unverifiable native claims, conflicting claims, counterclaims, and hoaxes by poachers, European travelers, explorers, and big game hunters.
The controversial nature explains why it is widely considered a cryptid species of interest to cryptozoologists.
Theodore Noack, 1906
However, some early 20th-century researchers considered the African pygmy elephant a distinct species. Theodore Noack described the pygmy elephant in 1906 and assigned it the species designation Elephas africana pumilio.
Henri Schouteden also described the pygmy elephant in 1914 and named it Elephas fransseni (George Eberhart, 2002).
Subsequently, researchers named it Loxodonta pumilio and Loxodonta fransseni.
But following genetic studies conducted by Debruyne et al. (2003), the current expert consensus is that the African pygmy elephant is not a distinct species of African elephants.
The African pygmy elephant is not a distinct species
The researchers took mitochondrial DNA samples from nine museum specimens of African pygmy elephants and compared them with DNA samples from African forest elephants.
They concluded that African pygmy elephants were forest elephants with smaller sizes because they reached maturity earlier.
Pygmy elephants acquired smaller sizes in adaptation to environmental conditions about 2.6 million years ago. Thus, the researchers concluded they were not separate species but a diminutive variety of African forest elephants.
Habitat and behavior
African pygmy elephants are supposedly native to the rainforests of the Congo basin, Gabon, Cameroon, and Equatorial Guinea. They live side by side with forest elephants.
Pygmy elephants allegedly live in swampy environments along the banks of the Congo forest rivers. They are also good swimmers. They raise their trunk and their head above the water while swimming.
Pygmy elephants eat vegetation, fruits, and tender tree barks along the river banks. They are reportedly aggressive and are often a nuisance to fishermen because they destroy fishing traps and nets and capsize boats.
They are sometimes called water elephants. But some cryptozoologists claim that water elephants are a separate species of tapir-like dwarf elephants native to the Congo.
Water elephants are reportedly known to locals as ndgoko na maiji.
Were prehistoric dwarfs the same as the African pygmy elephant
Prehistoric dwarf elephants (order Proboscidea; family Elephantidae) lived widely distributed on the Mediterranean islands during the Pleistocene epoch (2.6 million-11,700 years ago).
[Note: The term pachyderm (order Pachydermata) used for elephants in popular literature is scientifically obsolete.]
Paleontologists found fossil remains of dwarf elements at several locations on islands in the Mediterranean region, including Sardinia, Sicily, Malta, Crete, Cyprus, Cyclades, and Dodecanese Islands.
Prehistoric dwarf elephants stood about 3 feet 3 inches to 7 feet 7 inches at the shoulder. They belonged to several genera in the elephant family (Elephantidae), including Palaeoloxodon and Mammuthus (mammoth genera).
There is also fossil evidence of dwarf forms of other members of the order Proboscidea that did not belong to the family Elephantidae, such as the prehistoric dwarf forms of the elephant-like members of the genus Stegodon found on some islands of southeast Asia.
While some cryptozoologists insist on distinguishing African pygmy elephants from the prehistoric dwarf elephants, others suggest that the modern-day cryptids may be surviving populations of prehistoric species.
The evolutionary mechanisms underlying the emergence of prehistoric dwarfs and modern-day African pygmy elephants were likely the same.
Researchers believe dwarf elephants are an example of a biological phenomenon called insular dwarfism. It occurs when a terrestrial species becomes isolated in geographically circumscribed or resource-restricted environments, such as islands. The animal adapts to the prevailing conditions by acquiring a smaller body size.
Smaller body sizes are due to early physical and sexual maturation.
The African forest elephant
The African forest elephant is native to the rainforests of West and Central Africa (the Congo Basin, Cameroon, and Gabon). Europeans first learned about forest elephants in the late 1800s. Detailed descriptions of the animal first appeared in scientific journals in the early 1900s.
They are smaller than the African savanna elephant. Adult males stand about 7 feet 10-11 inches to 9 feet 10 inches at the shoulder and may weigh up to 4-7 tons. The females are much smaller, ranging from 5 feet 11 inches to 7 feet 10 inches and weigh 2-4 tons.
They have greyish, dark brown to dark grey skins. The skin may acquire a reddish or yellowish tinge after wallowing. They also have smaller, less curved, and downwards-pointing tusks.
They live in small family herds feeding on green foliage, fruits, tender barks, and forest seeds.
Forest elephants are a critically endangered species
Since European scientistss discovered forest elephants in the late 1800s and early 1900s, their population has declined dramatically. Conservationists blame the declining population on poaching, human encroachment and habitat degradation.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) included the species on their red list of critically endangered species in 2021.
Sightings and Tales
The following are alleged significant sightings of African pygmy elephants, according to cryptozoologist Eberhart (2002).
Baron Maurice de Rothschild, 1904
Baron Maurice de Rothschild purchased strange-looking ivory tusks at an Ethiopian market in 1904. Cryptozoologists believe that the 2-feet long specimens belonged to a pygmy elephant.
It was less curved than regular elephant tusks and had a rounded tip. It also had multiple purportedly non-man-made grooves at the base.
Carl Hagenback, 1905
While visiting the Congo basin in 1905, Carl Hagenback captured a diminutive elephant.
He transported the strange creature standing about 6 feet at the shoulder to Germany. Professor Theodore Noack examined it at a zoo in Hamburg and declared it a pygmy or dwarf subspecies of the African forest elephant.
The bull, christened Congo, ended up at the Bronx Zoo, where the managers exhibited it as a pygmy subspecies of the African elephant from Cameroon known to the natives as the mesalla (messala).
But according to Salusbury (2009), subsequent examination suggested it was a juvenile forest elephant of about 11 years old. It reportedly grew in captivity from 6 feet to 6 feet 8 inches.
It developed a leg infection at the Bronx Zoo, and the keepers euthanized it in 1915.
Le Petit, 1907
Le Petit reported sighting diminutive aquatic elephants in the Congo River in the summer of June 1907. The locals called the water elephants Ndgoko na maiji.
Le Petit reportedly sighted another group of about five individuals near Lake Mai-Ndombe in the western Mai-Ndombe province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Lieutenant Franssen, 1911
A Belgian military officer reportedly shot a pygmy elephant standing 5 feet 5 inches tall while hunting in the forests of the DRC in 1911. The specimen had a tusk about 2 feet long.
Hans Schomburgk, 1913
In 1913, a European resident near the Léfini Faunal Reserve area, Republic of Congo, showed a strange-looking elephant skin covered in red hair to the German explorer, filmmaker, and big-game hunter Hans Schomburgk (1880-1967).
He claimed that the skin belonged to a water elephant.
Francois Edmond-Blanc, 1955
Francois Edmond-Blanc reported a small herd of diminutive elephants feeding in a marshy area during an expedition in 1955.
The elephants stood about 6 feet at the shoulder.
Harald N. Nestroy, 1982
Harald N. Nestroy, a former German diplomat, reportedly captured photographs of a herd of pygmy elephants in the Likouala-Mossaka area of the Republic of Congo in 1982.
The herd of about six individuals included adults and two juveniles.
L. P. Knoepfler
In the 1980s, L. P. Knoepfler discovered the carcass of a pregnant pygmy elephant at Makokou village in Gabon. The specimen stood bout 5 feet 3 inches at the shoulder.
|Other Name/s||Ndgoko na maiji (Congo), Sumbi (Sierra Leone), Messala (Cameroon/Republic of Congo), Wakawaka (DRC), water elephant|
|Location||Cameroon, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo,|
Where to find
Mysterious Creatures: A Guide to Cryptozoology, George M. Eberhart (2002)
https://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/page/19245719#page/515/mode/1up, “A Dwarf Form of the African Elephant by Theodore Noack (1906),” accessed on April 1, 2023.
https://www.thewildlifediaries.com/types-of-elephants-in-the-wild/#:~:text=After%20its%20discovery%20early%20in,is%20due%20to%20environmental%20conditions., “The 7 types of elephants and where to see them in the wild,” accessed on April 1, 2023.
https://www.dictionary.com/browse/african-pygmy-elephant#:~:text=noun,likely%20due%20to%20environmental%20conditions., “Dictionary: Thee African pygmy elephant,” accessed on April 1, 2023.
https://mattsalusbury.blogspot.com/2009/10/pygmy-pachyderms-on-track-of-pygmy.html, “Pygmy Pachyderms? On the track of pygmy elephants, from Fortean Times by Matt Salusbury,” accessed on April 1, 2023.
https://malcolmscryptids.blogspot.com/2021/08/yes-there-really-are-pygmy-elephants.html, “Yes, There Really Are Pygmy Elephants,” accessed on April 1, 2023.
https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1631069103001586, “Status of the so-called African pygmy elephant (Loxodonta pumilio (Noack 1906),” accessed on April 1, 2023.
Featured Image: The African pygmy elephant is a diminutive form of the forest elephant native to Central Africa. Pic credit: Pixabay