Old Acquaintances

By SdS

Join us for An Evening With Elephants at EVE Encinitas on November 2nd, 5-7:30pm for a special in-person event to learn more!

A page from our original ID catalogue from 2005, with a female ID’d as [047] on top.

[047] 2008

[047] in 2008.

When I was starting the project in 2005, learning to recognize individual elephants was tricky. Building the photo catalogue was laborious, we went through videos frame by frame trying to distinguish an ear flap here, a tiny hole there. But even then, there were some who looked so unique that it was enough to see them once – they were difficult to forget.

One clear July day we were on a track along a hillside overlooking the reservoir. It was an old logging road that was kept clear as a fire break. The tall grass gleamed silvery white, rustling like paper in the dry breeze. Out of this emerged a very large herd that we were seeing for the first time. The most distinctive among them was a stocky well-built adult female whose ears rolled forward along their upper edges, like sausages. Though I couldn’t say how old she was, she appeared mature to me – perhaps because the curled ears made her seem older. I didn’t see her or her group again the rest of the month, unlike some of the other elephants I was getting used to seeing regularly. When I got back after my first field season, I had only the videos from that single day with which to ID the mysterious group. The female with the curly ears was given the number [047].

Being so rarely seen, [047]’s group was not among my original study cohort because I didn’t have enough data on them. I didn’t have a good idea of their habits. Yet over the years the UWERP team did see them from time to time. Fortunately, digital cameras improved significantly in quality and also became more affordable. We could take better pictures, faster. Slowly the group began to reveal itself – but I seldom saw them during my brief summer visits. [047] already seemed so mature to me in 2005, I wasn’t even sure she was still alive. Many of the elders I knew have passed away.

Two weeks ago we were on that same old logging road we’ve driven over so many times. It’s dramatically changed now, like the rest of the park – the grass is gone, trees and shrubs have taken over. Where we once had a clear 360-degree view for miles around, we can now only see a few meters on either side of the road. The elephants are still here though, and we encountered a good-sized group that was as curious about us as we were about them. From the vegetation emerged, to my happy surprise, [047]. She looked even heftier than she had before, but instantly recognizable and none the worse for wear given the amount of time that had passed since I first saw her.

[047] in 2008, looking like a tank.

[047] 2019

[047] in 2019, fit as a fiddle.

But of all the animals surrounding her, she is the only one I know. The others all belong to a younger generation. They milled about us, munching on the shrubbery. One young female hung around the rear of the jeep, itching very much to touch it but too shy to do so. She pretended to be interested in the puddle of water behind us instead. I noticed she had very unusual eyes, the irises tinged bluish-white. Pretty, I thought, so long as this didn’t harm her vision. She was given a new number, [132]. When we see new adults these days, they are nearly always with groups we already know. They must have been teenagers who matured during the study. Because Asian elephant social groups are so fluid, and individuals take so long to mature, it is difficult for us to know exactly who their mothers were or how they are related – especially when they are rarely seen.

[132] is a curious elephant with curious eyes.

[132], our curious friend.

The herd seemed unsure what to make of us – should they pass by? Should they investigate? Should they fuss? A youngster with bits of grass casually hanging out of its mouth poked its trunk inquiringly to the mouth of the nearest adult. There was much ear-flapping, growling ado.

Eventually [047] deigned to see for herself. After regarding us for a while, she finally decided she had better things to do.  The others, gradually and very reluctantly, carried on with their business as well. I was glad to see [047] still in good health, and we moved off in good spirits.

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