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

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

New pan-Indian study of elephant genetics reveals surprises

Herd of elephants in Terai Arc Landscape

Asian elephants were once widely distributed in India, but are now restricted to four widely separated regions: the north-western (NW), north-eastern (NE), east-central (ECI), and the southern India (SI). When you undertake the population genetics study of a wildlife species, the quality of the result is related to the design of the field sampling protocol. This is to ensure that the sampling is extensive covering different areas to avoid over-sampling of more accessible populations. When we started our population genetics study of the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus L.), we planned to collect fresh elephant dung samples from across the beats and various ranges of protected forests in India. This of course often involved traversing through inhospitable and difficult terrain with a forest staff in attendance. The first problem were the elephants themselves. To get fresh dung, one had to go close to elephants for collecting samples. This often did not go down too well with some individuals who responded to the invasion by a determined charge. We were fortunate not to have suffered any mishaps and ultimately it worked out well and we were able to collate an impressive database of elephant dung samples.

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Camera Trapping Elephants in Agricultural Areas

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.

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When farmers and elephants compete for space

By Lena Coker

These farmers in Sri Lanka are at the interface of forest and agriculture, where most incursions by elephants occur.

In Sherpur, rural Bangladesh, as the human population increases, so does the demand for the land and natural resources that the elephants need to survive. This is a story of human-animal conflict that is repeated around the globe with many species and rural communities as they struggle to find the balance for coexistence. Continue reading

E is for “Endangered”

Or why we shouldn’t take those large odd-looking animals for granted.

E is for Endangered

Step into any nursery or play room, take a quick walk down the isles of your local bookstore or library. Or just look at the clothing and toys we surround children with. They are full of images of iconic animals – giraffes, rhinoceros, hippos, lions, elephants…

We use these animals to teach the alphabet, and cherish them as beloved characters in our story books. They adorn everything from birthday cards to blankets.

What would the world be like without them? Continue reading

How early life may influence the way elephants age

Guest post by Hannah Mumby, Myanmar Elephant Project / University of Sheffield

Elephant babies in myanmar

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.

So why is this interesting? Continue reading

How does empathy help elephants?

By SdS

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A small family of elephants in Uda Walawe wanders upon a dead calf which does not belong to them. Yet they show great interest, touching and hovering over the body for hours, refusing to let any observers near until they finally decide to move off. Photos: UWERP

In the past week a paper on reassurance behavior in elephants by Plotnik et al. in PeerJ has been generating quite a bit of buzz. The study, which you can learn more about from the researchers themselves here, collected a series of observations on a group of captive elephants in Thailand documenting how they reacted when one of their companions was distressed.  It showed that when some individuals were disturbed in some way and expressed their distress, other individuals approached them and interacted in ways (such as touching, vocalizing) that suggested that they might be trying to comfort or console their companion.  Such behavior would indicate that elephants have the capacity for empathy, along with a handful of other species.

The title of this post is meant to work on at least two levels. First, we might wonder at a biological level – what is the function of the curious  behavior elephants sometimes show toward others in distress? Why might it have evolved? Whom does it benefit? Second, we might wonder at a practical level – should the capacities of elephants endow them with additional conservation value? Should it matter on the ground? So today, the first ever World Wildlife Day, I’d like to examine these two sets of questions, which are very distinct. Continue reading

Thinking like elephants

By: Lisa Barrett, Research Assistant – Think Elephants International, Inc.
Photos: Elise Gilchrist (c) 2014, Think Elephants International, Inc. www.thinkelephants.org

Plotnik3Think Science. Think Education. Think Elephants. That’s our motto at Think Elephants International (TEI), a nonprofit based in northern Thailand.  Founded by Dr. Joshua Plotnik in 2010, TEI’s aim is to conserve wild Asian elephants in Thailand by integrating elephant intelligence research with conservation education programming. We “think elephants” both because we think of elephants when we consider ways to help improve their conservation status, and we also think like elephants in designing our research paradigms. We use scientific research to understand how elephants “see” their world and how we can most effectively save their world. Dr. Plotnik has shown that elephants are both able to pass the mirror self-recognition task (Plotnik et al. 2006) and that they can cooperate together to complete a novel problem (Plotnik et al. 2011). In addition to demonstrating the amazing cognitive abilities of this species, we are also passionate about research that can directly impact conservation techniques to mitigate human-elephant conflict. Continue reading

Asian elephant imitates Korean speech

Koshik is a 12-year-old male Asian elephant housed at the Everland Zoo in South Korea.  For some years he had been a local star that was the subject of some internet fame due to his uncanny ability to produce human-like sounds.  Not only this, but they actually seemed to resemble Korean words.

In a new paper in the journal Current Biology by Angela Stoeger and colleagues, Koshik’s vocalizations were put to the test.  Could he really produce words, as trainers claimed?

The researchers recorded Koshik’s special utterances and played them back to a panel of native Korean speakers who had never heard him before. These participants did not know who was producing the sounds or what they were supposed to mean. They were then asked to write down the words they heard.  They found that Koshik’s call resembled five Korean words: ‘‘annyong’’ (hello), ‘‘anja’’ (sit down), ‘‘aniya’’ (no), ‘‘nuo’’ (lie down), and ‘‘choah’’ (good).  He appeared to be very good at reproducing the vowels in each of the words, but the consonants were more problematic.  “Choah” for instance was interpreted sometimes as “boah” (look) and “moa” (collect) by the human listeners.

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Trackways freeze time to reveal ancient elephant sociality

An artist’s reconstruction of what the ancient herd may have looked like, here showing Stegotetrabelodon

The evolution of behavior is tricky to study for one very simple reason: behaviors usually don’t fossilize.  While anatomy can be reconstructed based on skeletal remains and imprints, how might one glimpse how a living, breathing organism behaved millions of years ago? Continue reading