The Secret Life of Elephants

We have the pleasure of watching elephants in broad daylight in precious few places like Udawalawe, where they are habituated enough to be placid and tolerant of onlookers. Indeed, one can get rather spoiled in this particular Park, because even the birds are unafraid and will happily sit and pose for your clumsy photograph from inches away. At times, certain exhibitionist pachyderms even appear to put on a show for the gawking crowds:

But all is not paradise. Continue reading

The Buzz about Elephants and Bees

An elephant family rests under a tree in the hot midday heat. Situations like this were perfect for the playback experiments.

by SdS

In October 2007 Lucy King and colleagues first made a splash by reporting that African elephants seemed to be rather put off by bees.  I was still in Sri Lanka during my big “data collection year” as a graduate student, trying to figure out the social relationships among Asian elephants and recording vocalizations whenever I got a chance. Lucy’s first paper was a curiosity, but then three years later she followed it up with the even more intriguing finding that African elephants even produce alarm calls specific to bees. This got the attention of my advisor at Penn, Dorothy Cheney, who having expended considerable time thinking about such things as monkey alarm calls, dropped me a one-liner: “Have you seen this?” Continue reading

Sumedha’s Epic Musth

Sumedha shows all signs of musth as he consorts with Indika (Sandamali) in 2011, which include secretions from the temporal glands on the sides of his head and urine dribbling.

Of all the iconic tuskers that have passed through Udawalawe over the years, Sumedha is the one I’ve known longest. All tuskers are distinctive, because they’re so rare in Udawalawe, but Sumedha additionally had a nice big hole in his left ear and an awkward  tail with no hair. He wasn’t as regal as my beloved Raja, nor as old and wise as the Kalthota tusker, both of whom would have been easily dominant over him in the early years. But he was younger than either of them, and built like a tank. So if he survived, eventually his time would come. Continue reading

Evolving A More Egalitarian Elephant

coverphoto

A young female named Right Hole puts her trunk over the head and back of another female of similar age with the ID [458]. The two are from different social groups, though they know each other.

Elephants are commonly thought to live in matriarchal societies which rely on the strong leadership and wisdom of elders, with strong age-based dominance hierarchies. Our new study in the journal Behavioral Ecology overturns this view, finding that in fact Asian elephants, unlike African savannah elephants (Loxodonta africana), do not exhibit clear dominance hierarchies or matriarchal “leadership” [1]. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Ethimali Finds Her “Forever Home” In The Wild

by DJ, USW, and SdS (Photos by DJ &UWERP)

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.

Ethimali (wearing a belt around the neck) with Mahee, a wild adult female and her calf in 2004.

Continue reading

Rehabilitated elephants can be good moms!

By Deepani Jayantha & Sameera Weerathunga

[208] and calf

[208] with her newborn calf in June

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 [208] 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

Musth, not tusks, confers advantage to duelling males

Tuskers fighting.

Two tusked bulls fighting. Photo by Karpagam Chelliah.

Bull Asian elephants come in two forms: tusk, and tuskless (this is termed dimorphism).  It’s long been thought that tusks must confer an advantage in competitions between males for dominance and mating rights.  However a recent study by Karpagam Chelliah and Raman Sukumar of elephants at Kaziranga National Park, India, puts a wrinkle on this common story. Continue reading

How will Asian elephants react to the sound of bees?

Guest post by Dr. Lucy King – Elephants & Bees Project, Save The Elephants

Apis Cerana, Photo by K. Raveendran

Apis Cerana, Photo by K. Raveendran

I’ve just returned home to Kenya after a fascinating month working with Dr Shermin de Silva and her team at the Uda Walawe Elephant Research Project in Sri Lanka. There have been several productive links between Dr de Silva’s project and ours at Save the Elephants over the years and key to the collaboration has been the ability to compare elephant population ecology between Kenyan and Sri Lankan elephants. However, I went to work in Uda Walawe National Park for an entirely different reason – bees! Continue reading

Wildlife-Viewing is Not Thrill-Seeking

Baretail and Batik with their newborns.

Baretail and Batik with their newborns.

We sometimes forget how fortunate we are to be able to watch peaceful, calm, habituated elephants in Udawalawe.  It’s easy to take for granted when they stand there, threshing their grass en masse, as though it were the most natural thing in the world to have a horde of humans gawking at them from a few meters away. This post may seem self-evident to a younger generation of wildlife watchers, who have grown up in a world packed to the breaking point with human beings and who realize that wilderness is an increasingly rare and precious thing.  But it may challenge the thinking of some, particularly those of an older generation, for whom wilderness was a vast and ominous space teeming with dangerous things.  For the latter, seeing wildlife might satisfy the need for a thrill in the same way as watching a frightening movie or visiting an amusement park – especially if that wildlife acts fierce and ferocious, such as charging elephant might do. This view still prevails among more than a handful of people today, who might think that seeing the “tame” elephants of some national parks is not as much fun as getting a much more “wild” experience in more secluded areas where the animals elicit more mutual terror.

If this is you, or someone you know, then read on and share. This post is for you.

Loch Ness monster?

Loch Ness monster?

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