How elephants in Sri Lanka use protected areas

By Annie Madsen

Elephant behavior has long endeared the public. From complex social structures to tool use, hearing stories about behavior not only teaches about fantastic ecological adaptations, it shows a window into elephant’s lives that we can understand and relate to on a personal level. Showcasing behaviors has often been used to help elephant conservation. However, behaviors are sometimes disconnected from how managers actually conserve elephant populations. In a new study, we examine elephant space use behavior in the hope that it can directly inform management practices.

Although protected areas are an important part of conservation strategies, it’s important that conservationists and wildlife managers understand how animals use actually protected areas. In this study, we used observational data that the Udawalawe Elephant Research Project had collected about Asian elephants at Udawalawe National Park over nine years. A unique aspect of this study was that we it was based on direct observations rather than the movements of particular individuals that were tracked (e.g. with collars) so it represents a much larger sample than studies of space use can typically accommodate. We also had social and behavioral data so we wanted to know how certain aspects of life history affected park use for males and females. How often were elephants using the park, and critically, how often were they not using the park? This gives us an idea of how much of the population is actually residential to Udawalawe. To answer these questions, we investigated park use for males and females separately, and with different behavioral considerations. A key variable was the amount of time (days) that elapsed between consecutive sightings. The longer this interval, the further away they could potentially go from the park.

Female Asian elephants have complex social behaviors. Day to day, females spend time in small social groups of only 2-3 individuals, but they also form much larger social communities over long time periods (months to years). We found that in Udawalawe, females with strong social associations had more similar park use to each other compared to those with weaker social associations. In the larger social communities, many females used the park on a longer-term basis. Other females in the population were only seen in a couple of years. Females that used the park on a long-term basis were considered residents, but half of the female population did not meet this criterion, and only used the park during part of their lives. One of the main take-aways from this set of results is that social groups do not necessarily all travel together in and out of the park. Based on earlier research we already knew that social relationships could shift from year to year, so this shows that the decision to move is partly related to what social companions are doing but also depends on individuals’ own choices.

The study area includes only the middle section of the park, where there is a road network. The upper map shows high spatial overlap between males who were seen only foraging (f), only in musth (m) or both states (f+m). Likewise, the lower map shows spatial overlap between female groups that were less residential (3 & 9) vs. those that were more residential (10 & 12).

Compared to females, male elephants live relatively solitary lives. This is especially true during mate searching, when males enter a “musth” state. When in this state, bulls have a one-track mind for finding mates and largely abandon foraging behavior, increasing aggression and movement. We asked how males used the park differently according to their age and their main motivations for being in the park: searching for mates, foraging, or a mix of both. We found that age and motivation both affected male park use, and these were tightly linked. Younger males used the park mainly for foraging and later dispersed, while more males in the older age classes were split between using the park for both purposes, or solely for mate searching. Males were also more likely to be seen in multiple in years if their park-use strategy included both behaviors, or if they were older and used the park for mating only. However, we also found that most of the males that were considered residents used the park only for foraging, and this was a minority of males, with most being considered non-residents. A very interesting finding was that males appear to shift strategies around the age of 40, where they appear to settle into a more regular pattern of visitation exclusively during their musth periods. We think this is because males must wander around and lead a rather nomadic life for quite some time while testing and re-testing their competitive ability against other males in male-male contests before finally establishing their reproductive dominance.

Our study showed that the majority of the population (around three quarters!) is non-resident. Since most of the Udawalawe elephants primarily spend time outside of the park, this has important implications for conservation and management of this population. The landscape outside the park has variable land use, with some areas that are also protected and others that are heavily modified by agriculture and human settlements. There are thin pieces of protected land connecting National Parks that elephants use as corridors, but these areas vary between mixed-used land and sanctuaries. As we can see from our results, protected areas certainly do not qualify as a one-size-fits-all conservation strategy. In addition to maintaining protected areas, we also need to maintain connectivity with the surrounding landscapes so elephants and other wildlife can move safely between areas as they change space use depending on their individual needs and motivations.

Reference:

Madsen, A. E., Minge, C., Pushpakumara, T. V., Weerathunga, U. S., Padmalal, U. K., Weerakoon, D. K., & de Silva, S. (2022). Strategies of protected area use by Asian elephants in relation to motivational state and social affiliations. Scientific reports, 12(1), 1-13.

Full text open access at: Strategies of protected area use by Asian elephants in relation to motivational state and social affiliations | Scientific Reports

Related Posts:

Annie Madsen is a PhD candidate studying animal behavior at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Trialing Camera Traps 

We’re partnering with Bring The Elephant Home in Thailand to trial the potential of alternative crops to support farmers living with elephants. We’re excited to bring the first news from the field, by Brooke Friswold, who is a PhD student at King Mongkut University of Technology Thonburi!


by Brooke Friswold

The team in Thailand has been busy over the last two months – especially while director and founder of Bring the Elephant Home (BTEH) Antoinette van de Water has been in country! With the start of data collection for a subset of five BTEH rented lemongrass plots and ten community-owned pineapple plots on the horizon, equipment and methodology trialing has begun. Data collection via camera trapping is set to begin in mid-May to record baseline elephant behavior in control and experimental plots for the HECTAARE project and for Brooke Friswold’s PhD research with King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi (KMUTT) in partnership with BTEH and HECTAARE. 

Continue reading

Can Asian elephants use water as a tool?

By Dr. Lisa P. Barrett

Asian elephants at the Oklahoma City Zoo

The floating object task is a puzzle that comparative cognition researchers present to animals (including humans) to study the evolution of cognitive abilities, like cause and effect understanding and the ability to use water as a tool. To solve the task and retrieve the floating reward inside, you must add water to a tube to raise the water level and reach the reward. Some primates, like orangutans have been able to solve the task by carrying water in their mouths from a drinker and spitting it into the tube to reach a peanut.

My colleague, Dr. Sarah Benson-Amram, and I presented this puzzle to elephants for the first time (Barrett & Benson-Amram, 2020). We wanted to see if elephants’ unique trunk morphology would make them well-equipped for the floating object task. Since they spray water for bathing, and hold water in their trunk as a vessel for bringing it to their mouth, we predicted that they would be up for the task. We collaborated with the National Zoo and the Oklahoma City Zoo to carry out this research. We used a tube filled about 1/3 of the way with water, baited with a floating marshmallow. As is often the case with animal research, things did not go as we expected.

Continue reading

The Consequences of Irresponsible Tourism

By Salik Ansar & SdS

Tourist feeding elephants.

September 27th is World Tourism Day, so today we offer some more reflections based on the Udawalawe experience.


Until the recent COVID-19 epidemic halted travel around the globe, the island of Sri Lanka thrived on tourism. A big part of the country’s GDP is attributed to tourism. According to Sri Lanka Tourism Development Association, 783,000 tourists visited Sri Lanka’s national parks in 2018, which is roughly 38% of the travelers who entered the country. The parks earned over 2 billion rupees (over $11 million USD) in entrance fees alone. Clearly, elephants have a huge economic value (more about this here).

Continue reading

Baby tantrums

We’ve temporarily halted field work due to the pandemic. So, we thought this was a good time to bring you some stories from our archives of field notes! In honor of Mother’s Day, here’s an incident that helped us appreciate just how little we understand about what goes on beneath the surface of an elephant’s mind. Happy Mother’s Day!

——————–

August 22 2012

Can you tell what’s going on in this video? Well, if you know the elephants individually, there’s quite an intriguing story behind it. Read on to see what’s happening, and see if you can follow the video…

Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Call Combinations Differ Among Living Elephants

The living elephants – Asian elephant, African forest elephant and African savannah elephant.

Guest post by Michael Pardo

Ask most people what sound an elephant makes and they are likely to think of a trumpet. In reality though, elephants produce an incredible variety of different vocalizations. The most common call is a deep, pulsating rumble, so low-pitched that human observers sometimes feel it more than hear it. Elephants also roar—powerful, bellowing sounds that carry across the landscape. And sometimes, they give combination calls, in which one or two rumbles and roars are stitched together with no pause for breath.

I visited Udawalawe in 2014 to work with the Udawalawe Elephant Research Project, and was especially fascinated by these combination calls. Combining meaningful units into sequences with an additional meaning is a key component of human language, but there are relatively few examples of this phenomenon in other species. Listening to the Udawalawe elephants, I was struck by the fact that they nearly always produced combination calls in the same order: a single roar followed by a single rumble. Why was this? Could it be analogous to grammatical rules in human language? Or could it be as simple as an anatomical constraint that made it difficult for the elephants to produce a rumble before a roar? Continue reading

Mind Over Matter

Those sneaky sneaks!

It was a perfectly framed shot of a young elephant breaking the electric fence, perhaps even looking a little gleefully smug about it. Still this was a relatively common incident, and while it was nice to catch at least one culprit in the act, the observation was hardly a breakthrough (pun intended). But as we watched on, it was what came next that was so beautifully, endearingly meaningful that we couldn’t help watching again, and again, and again. Continue reading

Social Structure in South Indian Elephants

Guest post by Nandini Shetty

A group of elephants visit the grasslands surrounding the Kabini Reservoir in Southern India. Photo: Kabini Elephant Project

India includes some of the largest populations of Asian elephants in the world: an estimated ~26 000 to 28 000 elephants distributed across four regions. Of the four regions, southern India includes the single largest population of Asian elephants in the world (~14 000) and elephants are distributed across the Western and Eastern Ghats.

I studied the ecology and behaviour of Asian elephants as part of an ongoing long-term project on elephants, the Kabini Elephant Project, which was started in March 2009 to study the social life of elephants. Continue reading

News that caught our attention

Before we start, a disclaimer: there’s a lot of bad news out there. We’re not going to amplify it by reposting here. But we thought it would be nice to highlight interesting news every now and then. Things that give us hope (#ElephantOptimism) and/or make us think.

Here are a couple.

  1.  To bee (hive-fence) or not to bee (hive-fence)

Image: Bangkok Post

We recently published the results of a study done back in 2014 with Dr. Lucy King of the Elephants and Bees Project showing that Asian elephants are not very keen on bees (read the blog post here).  But of course, plenty of people had heard about the earlier studies with African elephants and had already jumped to the final step – beehive fences as a means of deterring crop raiding. Continue reading