The Sumatran elephant (Elephas maximus sumatranus), found only on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia, is critically endangered according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The population is decreasing with approximately 1500 elephants left in the wild in fragmented populations. Deforestation, loss of habitat and poaching for ivory are amongst the major threats to the survival of this species.
The Leuser Ecosystem (which forms a significant part of the UNESCO World Heritage site ‘Tropical Rainforest Heritage of Sumatra’) and Ulu Masen in Aceh, Sumatra are a stronghold for the critically endangered Sumatran elephant and other critically endangered wildlife (e.g. orangutans, rhinoceros, and tigers). Both Leuser and Ulu Masen are essential for the survival and conservation of the Sumatran elephant, but much of their habitat falls outside the protected areas and in the most threatened lowland forests, creating elephant human contact. This makes it critical that effective mitigation strategies are developed that take into account elephant behaviour and the use of technology such as early warning systems to reduce conflict with the local communities.
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.
Over a decade ago now, Dr. Lucy King developed the beehive fence as an elephant deterrent, capitalising on a then-recent discovery that African elephants avoided African honeybees (Vollrath & Douglas-Hamilton, 2002). The beehive fence is a relatively simple, inexpensive deterrent, aiming to be a tool that communities can use independently following set-up. The basic premise is that a series of beehives surround an area to be protected from elephants, and if elephants attempt to enter, they will disturb the beehives, causing the colonies to swarm (refer to King et al. 2009; 2017 for more details). It should come as no surprise, that the success of multiple beehive fence trials in Africa, led to a curiosity as to whether this technique could also help Asian communities experiencing comparable levels of crop-raiding.
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).
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…
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  on top.
 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 a some who looked so unique that it was enough to see them once – they were difficult to forget. Continue reading →
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 →
Electric fences that split forested habitat are all too common. As a result, occurrences like this are frequent.
Sri Lanka is part of the ancestral home of Asian elephants and a skeleton traced to this population now serves as the definitive “type” specimen. They existed before settlers colonized and cultivated, before the ancient tanks were built, before the kings and kingdoms, colonizers and governments. This was their land long before humankind set foot on it to set about defining visible and invisible boundaries for ourselves and everything else. Yet here we are, and we are here to stay, so our fates are now linked. An elephant is more than a mere animal or symbol. It is the most un-ignorable occupant of a swiftly vanishing world that harbors an infinitely old and precious natural heritage. It is also a force of nature that annually claims human lives. Therein lies the crux of the difficulty. There’s just one question we need to ask ourselves: do we want elephants (and their bretheren) to persist on this little island, or not? I pose this question on World Elephant day because we are at a juncture that will decide the outcome. Continue reading →
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 →
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 →