Rambo, the Romeo

Guest post by Christin Minge

Rambo at his habitual location.

Rambo at his habitual location.

Male Asian elephants live rich social lives with a complex dynamic structure. They are often seen as solitary, but also frequently associate and interact with other males or female-groups depending on a variety of interconnecting factors, including life history, male dominance and alternative mating strategies, male and female sexual states and a complex feedback loop of social relationships with other elephants – just to name a few (Chelliah and Sukumar, 2013; 2015). The magnitude and consequences of sociality in male elephants are far from being explored yet, which is an emerging area of interest for the Uda Walawe Elephant Research Project. Simply speaking, mature males are expected to associate and interact with female-groups more during their reproductively active periods and are more solitary or in male-male associations during reproductively inactive periods.

Rambo investigates a young female.

Rambo investigates a young female.


Not in estrus. Better carry on!

Rambo’s life is a great example of the varying social dynamics in individual males in response to male sexual state. Unfortunately, he is also a vivid example of tourism gone wrong and might represent one outcome of human impact on social behavior in elephants. We have been observing Rambo for more about 7 years now. Being about 45 years, this bulky male is in his prime age now and exhibits lapses of musth of up to three months yearly (roughly May to July). During the last two years, we observed him three times in association with female groups deep in the park while in musth and another three times alone in search for receptive females. This was surprising (and positive) behavior from him, because previously we had never seen him very far from the fence, even when it appeared he was in musth.  So this meant he was exhibiting healthy behavior for a bull, despite his predilection for human food at other times. During non-musth periods, he generally remains solitary.

Observations during Rambo’s non-musth phases in the last two years not only confirmed the solitary life style, but also always took place in the exact same location of the park, namely in the Udawalawe Reservoir area near the fence right by the main road, connecting Udawalawe to Thanamalvila. Why would he consistently choose such a noisy, hectic and anthropogenic area to live in during sexual inactivity? The answer is simple and yet worrisome: local and international tourists are constantly feeding him with a variety of fruits, including mangos, papayas, bananas, wood apples and king coconuts. The high sugar content Rambo has been and still is ingesting daily is of great concern for his health. In response to the risk of his well being (and other elephants), the Wildlife Department and Open University of Colombo took action to stop the feeding. Several sign-boards were put up threatening with penalty if feeding wouldn’t stop, a double fence was set to increase the distance between people and the elephants and park staff have been frequently chasing elephants away from the area. While this managed to dissuade the other ‘fence elephants’ of Uda Walawe, Rambo always returned. He had even evaded wildlife authorities who tried shoo him away from the fence by simply retreating into the water to wait them out.


At the beginning of musth in late May, Rambo is in good physical condition. Here he is inside the park amongst other elephants.


By the end of musth in late June, his diminished condition is a result of his wanderings in search of females. This is not uncommon as bulls do not spend much time eating while they are in musth. Here he’s back at his customary post along the fence.

Rambo’s solitary life style and rarity of interactions with others, particularly other males, during non-musth periods might be a result of the feeding by people. We do not know yet what consequences these (unnecessary) human influences might have for a bull society. It is rather cheering though to think that this charismatic, peaceful (yet determined) animal may be leaving some descendants in the population.

Preferential male-male associations between male elephants during sexual inactivity (and potentially during sexual activity) might however be linked to fitness gain via information exchange, foraging facilitation, dominance resolution, social bonding and coalition formation, as described in several cognitive sophisticated, long-lived species with similar complex social organization as elephants, e.g. dolphins, some apes and several primates (Beacham, 2003; de Villiers et al., 2003; Evans, 2006)(Harcourt and de Waal, 1992; Feh, 1999; Connor et al., 2001; Alberts et al., 2003). In that case, the human impact might be enormous. One of our goals in the near future is to explore male sociality in elephants in great detail to not only be able to answer questions about its adaptive value, but also improve current conservation measures for this endangered species.


Alberts, S.C., Watts, H.E., Altmann, J., 2003. Queuing and queue-jumping: long-term patterns of reproductive skew in male savannah baboons, Papio cynocephalus. Animal Behaviour 65, 821-840.

Beacham, J.L., 2003. Models of dominance hierarchy formation: effects of prior experience and intrinsic traits. Behaviour, 140, 1275e1303. behaviour 140, 1275-1303.
Chelliah, K., Sukumar, R., 2013. The role of tusks, musth and body size in male–male competition among Asian elephants, Elephas maximus. Animal Behaviour 86, 1207-1214.

Chelliah, K., Sukumar, R., 2015. Interplay of male traits, male mating strategies and female mate choice in the Asian elephant, Elephas maximus. Behaviour DOI: 10.1163/1568538X-00003271.

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de Villiers, M.S., Richardson, P.R.K., van Jaarsveld, A.S., 2003. Patterns of coalition formation and spatial association in a social carnivore, the African wild dog (Lycaon pictus). Journal of the Zoological Society of London 260, 377-389.

Evans, K.E., 2006. The behavioural ecology and movements of adolescent male African elephant (Loxodonta africana) in the Okavango Delta, Botswana, University of Bristol, Bristol, pp. 779-787.

Feh, C., 1999. Alliances and reproductive success in Camargue stallions. Animal Behaviour 57, 705-713.

Harcourt, A.H., de Waal, F.B.M., 1992. Cooperation and conflict: from ants to anthropoids, in: Harcourt, A.H., de Waal, F.B.M. (Eds.), Coalitions and alliances in humans and other animals, Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp. 493-510.


2 thoughts on “Rambo, the Romeo

  1. Pingback: Why We Study The Asian Elephant | Maximus

  2. Pingback: Responsible Tourism & Ethical Elephant Experiences | Maximus

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