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.
In partnership with Bring The Elephant Home in Thailand, we’re excited to share this picture diary from the field, by Brooke Friswold, who is a PhD student at King Mongkut University of Technology Thonburi!
Written by Brooke Friswold
It has been another busy month in Ruam Thai Village! We have erected ten camera traps on pineapple farms with the consent of local farmers in areas with reported high frequency of visitation and five on lemongrass farmland rented by Bring the Elephant Home.
In speaking with the farmers they were very excited and enthusiastic to share their experience: some of the farmers say that the elephants are coming most nights to their land, while others say it can be weekly or also come in waves, with times of high visitation followed by lapses in appearance. The farmers were very eager and interested to share and discuss where the best placement would be for the camera traps, the trails the elephants use to enter, and the recent visitations they had.
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.
He looked as though he were sitting down, surrounded by grass and reeds, his back against the intense blue sky, reflected in the mirror of the reservoir. Countless people had passed by, assuming he was just resting as he ate. You could see him easily from the road, just a few tens of meters from the electric fence along park boundary, close to the spillway.
But hours later, when he still hadn’t moved, someone realized something was wrong. 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 →
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 →
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 →
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 →
A clear sunny day, Lucy and Mickey are off in the park with Sameera while Kumara and I stay behind to catch up on office work. It’s mid-morning when Sameera calls to tell us Walawe Kota is back! Walawe Kota is the nickname we’ve given the dwarf elephant of Uda Walawe. This would be at least the third year now. What’s more, he’s in musth and reportedly fighting another male. At first, the news is a bit confusing – there’s mention of a possible injury.
I’ve never seen him in the flesh though Kumara and Sameera have. I’ve only seen pictures and video clips, so I’m eager to try our luck. The park office reports he’s been spotted not far from the entrance, so we hop in our Jeep and dash off in hopes he’s still out in the open. Continue reading →
Topsy the circus elephant, electrocuted in 1903 by Thomas Edison’s technicians in carrying out her death sentence while demonstrating the dangers of AC current. Photo: Chicago Tribune
By Ilja Van Braeckel
New York, anno 1903. The city stirs as dawn breaks. Woken up by the distant rumble in the neighboring tenement, you might join the breakfast table. You might appreciate your morning cup of chicory root coffee and nibble on some hard-earned buttered toast. You might scratch your head and raise an eyebrow or two as you open the newspaper and read how none other than Thomas Edison electrocuted Topsy, the 28 year female Asian elephant. You might learn how the murderous ‘beast died without a trumpet or a groan’, in Edison’s slanderous attempt to discredit his rival’s discovery of alternating current, per demonstration of its potential hazard.
Uda Walawe today, some 14 000 km and 110 years away. Neither Topsy nor Edison outwitted the tusk of time and all that remains of the unfortunate elephalectric turn of events is the original video footage and the alternating current that proved innovative. In fact, electricity is now commonly used to separate humans from other animals and this is no different in Uda Walawe, where the national park is delimited by an electric fence line. In reality, however, frequent power cuts make its efficiency questionable to say the least and the elephants, keen creatures that they are, seem to have learned to jostle over the fence poles. Continue reading →