Before COVID-19, the field team would regularly visit the Udawalawe National Park to track and monitor the elephant population in the region. They update records by seeking out new calves, checking for injuries or deaths among the population, and observing their day-to-day behavior. All of this regular contact also maintains a good relationship with the park authorities. During the lockdown, however, this work was impossible to carry on and our visits occurred in fits and starts, on again off again every few months.
On top of that, our work with the local community had also come to a halt with the island-wide lockdowns. District boundaries, which ordinarily one could cross without the slightest thought, turned into checkpoints that harked back to the civil war. Udawalawe National Park in fact straddles two, and suddenly our field team, based in one district to the West side of the park, could not cross over to visit the communities we had been working with in the East. They nevertheless kept in touch by phone to ensure we can resume our work on the Coexistence Project when the lockdown is lifted.
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…
The female orphaned elephant calf found in Ethimale, Southern Sri Lanka rescued and brought to Elephant Transit Home (ETH), Udawalawa was later named Ethimali. After several years of rehabilitation, she was released to Uda Walawe National Park in March 2004, when she was about 4 years old, with another 10 rehabilitated juveniles.
Some young females at the ETH show an array of maternal or allomothering characters from an early age, despite being orphans themselves. They seem to select calves out of new arrivals and try to be as attentive to them as possible. She frequently checks whether her orphan is alright and will be the first to respond if the orphan screams or is attacked by another calf. She keeps continuous company for the orphan and with time, it starts to follow her most of the day. When the orphan seeks comfort she allows it to suck on her – in the absence of real milk, even the tip of an ear will do!
Ethimali (wearing a belt around the neck) with Mahee, a wild adult female and her calf in 2004.
Guest post by Hannah Mumby, Myanmar Elephant Project / University of Sheffield
Elephant calves at a logging camp in Myanmar. Image courtesy of Hannah Mumby.
There are a great many reasons to study elephants; they’re endangered, highly social, quite frankly huge and hold a unique and central place in many cultures. They can also be very strong, sometimes dangerous and slow to do what you want. But that’s not enough to stop me from working on them! One of my interests is actually their life cycles. In the past I’ve studied humans and non-human primates and the fact that elephants evolved long lives, almost on a par with our own, but on a separate evolutionary trajectory was fascinating to me. Elephants also usually only have one calf at a time and each calf is dependent on its mother for many years. These characteristics allow us to test a lot of ideas underpinning theories of life history and ageing, including ones that have been primarily designed with humans in mind.
In August 2015, one of our frequently sighted females in Uda Walawe named Indika was seen suckling two calves of different ages on either sides of her. The younger male calf Indika was nursing was about three months old and merely skin and bones. He was obviously malnourished and weak. She already had a rounded and bulky belly suggesting another calf was on her way. This unusual behaviour of the elephants intrigued us so we dug deeper into our field notes.
It turned out he was not her calf – he had been born to  in June, 2015 and was the first calf we had witnessed her to have produced during our study. A few days after the birth she lost her interest in the new-born and may have stopped lactating. The calf’s body condition started gradually declining so our team informed the veterinary staff at the Elephant Transit Home. Continue reading →
I gazed out on Uda Walawe National Park for the first time in over a year as our jeep trundled through the entrance gate. I welcomed the cool morning air that I knew would swiftly turn hot as the sun climbed higher in the sky. Dark clouds loomed threateningly overhead, but they were all bluff. Uda Walawe is experiencing something of a drought this year—while we were driving to the park I noticed that the roaring river I remembered from last December had been replaced by a wide strip of boulders and trees.
Drought does have its advantages though. The ponds and reservoirs in the park had receded, baring flat, open areas that stood out in stark contrast to the dense shrubs and trees blanketing most of the habitat. I knew that if we were lucky enough to encounter elephants at any of these waterholes, I would have a clear line of sight for behavioral observations. Continue reading →
The Uda Walawe Elephant Research Project is now approaching eight years, a unique study of Asian elephants. Because elephants are such long-lived animals, it takes a long time to understand them – particularly for important variables like who reproduces and how often. Studies of wild African elephants have been conducted at multiple sites over 10 years or more (in some cases as many as 40!), but this has not been the case for the Asian species in the wild. There have been long-term records of Asian elephants populations in captivity from places like Myanmar, where they have long been used in timber camps, and it’s interesting to see how the two compare.
This past December we published a comprehensive paper analyzing six years of data on the wild Asian elephants of Uda Walawe National Park, Sri Lanka. This paper is one of a kind as it has been difficult for researchers to successfully monitor wild Asian elephants due to the difficulty of their habitats, and the logistical challenges of conducting steady research over longer time periods.
Tailless was one of the venerable elders of our population. She was especially important for this study for two reasons: she was unmistakable even after dying due to her uniquely broken tail, and her skull and jaw were recoverable. The wear on her teeth showed her age to be around 60 or more, meaning female elephants in Uda Walawe can potentially live out their full lifespans. We aged other females in the population relative to Tailless.
My favourite elephant has a deceptive disguise. By day, covered in mud, a pretty-looking elephant with a hairless tail, she goes (regrettably) by the name of Baretail – be careful what you nickname an elephant when you first meet, for it will stick! But by night, or after a good bath, Bare-tail’s gorgeous depigmentation is revealed, turning her into a super hero – a masked crusader!
Baretail’s mask is revealed after a bath.
And that she is. Yesterday, the beautiful Baretail came to the rescue of the endangered Asian elephant. With extremely rough estimates of only 38,000 to 52,000 wild Asian elephants left globally, Bare-tail went through a 22 month pregnancy to give birth to a teeny little boy. The B-unit, and the elephant population, has grown by one!
The newborn calf stayed close to a subadult female, who was very attentive to her.
It was a rainy afternoon. I met Fat-tail with a group at the crest of the Teak waterhole. Amidst the heavy downpour, they were grazing and moving towards Old Mau-Ara Road which is located on the North-east side of the park. When we neared them, Fat-tail came over and stood right next to the jeep. She was watching us, but it was a friendly look. Fat-tail and Right-hole were part of one of the largest social units we had documented in the past five years – the Rs, named after the oldest female among them, Ragged Ear. This unit had quite a few adults in it, but the split up during wet seasons. Fat-tail and Right-hole were a pair that were nearly always seen together and that day was no exception, they were both together along with the calves.
Fat-tail with her juvenile calf.
After few minutes I saw a newborn female calf who was being nursed by a subadult female. Lacking milk, the teenager was unable to actually feed calf. The calf was very tiny, still having the red skin and eyes characteristic of newborns, though covered by lots of hair. It was very active and always moved under the belly of the subadult, though she was definitely too young to be the mother of the calf. I wondered who the mother was. Neither Right-hole nor Fat-tail could be the mother – Right-hole had her own small calf with her. Fat-tail had had a newborn calf, but sadly, it had died a few months ago though she still had her older calf. She couldn’t give birth to a new calf yet since its takes 22 moths for a pregnancy so the interval between calves is usually at least four to five years. I got very curious about who the newborn could belong to. Continue reading →
This amazing image is a computer generated composite based on ultrasound scans of an elephant in the womb, taken for a BBC documentary (They also show a baby dolphin and dog, linked HERE). Here is what an actual ultrasound-based photograph looks like, taken at the Whipsnade Zoo. At just three months into the pregnancy, his little trunk is already visible! (Article linked HERE.)