Parting thoughts

Guest post by Michael Pardo, Cornell University

Friday, January 11, 2013

It’s hard to believe that this is my last day in the field.  The past month that I’ve spent at Uda Walawe seems to have gone by so quickly.  Part of me is eager to return to the US, where I will finally be able to sort through all the information that I have collected here.  But I do not want to leave the park and its elephants, and I resolve to savor this final day.

A juvenile plays on a mound.

A juvenile plays on a mound.

Today the sky is a pale, washed-out hue and threatens rain.  With any luck the downpour will hold off until evening.  Our first hour or so in the park passes uneventfully, but then we spot a small group of females grazing calmly amongst the shrubs.  The group is somewhat spread out; female [846] is standing in an open patch of grass about 100 meters away from female [431] and another elephant, who are partially hidden behind a screen of thorny bushes.  We watch the group for an hour; they ignore us and continue feeding.  Suddenly, [846] rumbles loudly.  Immediately, a responding rumble is heard.  Unfortunately, the second caller is obscured by vegetation, so we can’t determine whether it is [431] or her companion.  [846] answers with another rumble, and begins to walk toward the others.  As she walks, she produces a third rumble, and then the three elephants disappear into the greenery.  This type of back and forth vocal exchange, called antiphonal calling, is something that I have read about extensively, but until now had not observed for myself.  As I switch the recording device to stand-by mode, I can’t help but grin.

By midday, the ashen sky has started to deliver on its promise of rain.  Fat raindrops plunk down, slowly at first and then increasing in speed.  We pull the roof over the back of our jeep to prevent the equipment from getting wet.  Just as we are heading out of the park for lunch, we notice a few elephants standing near the road and pause.  After identifying them and marking the location on a GPS receiver we start to roll forward, but immediately stop when we see more elephants.  I lean out of the jeep and see even more, further up the road.  The roof on the jeep had obscured our view.  What we thought was a small number of animals is in fact a veritable herd!

Head overThe rain seems to have elicited a sense of playfulness in the elephants.  They are gathered close together and socializing a great deal more than usual.  A juvenile climbs onto a grassy hump of soil between two adults.  Then he promptly lies down and begins to roll around in the muddy grass.  His elders look on, apparently indifferent.

Head over 2Tail grabNearby, sub-adult male [m353] stands next to a sub-adult female.  They rub their heads together, and then [m353] runs his forehead along the female’s flank.  She reciprocates, rubbing her head against his rump.  [m353] sniffs deeply, and wraps the tip of his trunk around the female’s tail.  They stand there for over a minute, tail in trunk, as the rain runs down their backs in little rivulets.  [m353] then lifts his chin and rests it on the female’s back, just above her tail.  He slowly sweeps it up the convex slope of her spine all the way to her shoulders, and then back again.  Back and forth he runs his head along her back, increasing in speed.  I wonder if he will mount her next, but he does not.  The two stand side by side for a few more minutes, and then [m353] moves away across the road.  What were these two elephants doing?  I really have no idea, but I am intrigued.  The more time I spend with the elephants of Uda Walawe, the more they seem to reveal of their fascinating lives.  I very much look forward to returning this summer.

2 thoughts on “Parting thoughts

  1. Usually trunk and head-over behaviors occur as dominance gestures. But considering the rain and that it looks like they’ve got mud on them, they were probably just using one another as convenient scratching posts.

  2. Pingback: The “Elephant Grammar” Project at Uda Walawe National Park | Maximus

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