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.

Rambo investigates a young female.

Rambo investigates a young female.


Not in estrus. Better carry on!

Rambo’s life is a great example of the varying social dynamics in individual males in response to male sexual state. Unfortunately, he is also a vivid example of tourism gone wrong and might represent one outcome of human impact on social behavior in elephants. We have been observing Rambo for more about 7 years now. Being about 45 years, this bulky male is in his prime age now and exhibits lapses of musth of up to three months yearly (roughly May to July). During the last two years, we observed him three times in association with female groups deep in the park while in musth and another three times alone in search for receptive females. This was surprising (and positive) behavior from him, because previously we had never seen him very far from the fence, even when it appeared he was in musth.  So this meant he was exhibiting healthy behavior for a bull, despite his predilection for human food at other times. During non-musth periods, he generally remains solitary.

Observations during Rambo’s non-musth phases in the last two years not only confirmed the solitary life style, but also always took place in the exact same location of the park, namely in the Udawalawe Reservoir area near the fence right by the main road, connecting Udawalawe to Thanamalvila. Why would he consistently choose such a noisy, hectic and anthropogenic area to live in during sexual inactivity? The answer is simple and yet worrisome: local and international tourists are constantly feeding him with a variety of fruits, including mangos, papayas, bananas, wood apples and king coconuts. The high sugar content Rambo has been and still is ingesting daily is of great concern for his health. In response to the risk of his well being (and other elephants), the Wildlife Department and Open University of Colombo took action to stop the feeding. Several sign-boards were put up threatening with penalty if feeding wouldn’t stop, a double fence was set to increase the distance between people and the elephants and park staff have been frequently chasing elephants away from the area. While this managed to dissuade the other ‘fence elephants’ of Uda Walawe, Rambo always returned. He had even evaded wildlife authorities who tried shoo him away from the fence by simply retreating into the water to wait them out.


At the beginning of musth in late May, Rambo is in good physical condition. Here he is inside the park amongst other elephants.


By the end of musth in late June, his diminished condition is a result of his wanderings in search of females. This is not uncommon as bulls do not spend much time eating while they are in musth. Here he’s back at his customary post along the fence.

Rambo’s solitary life style and rarity of interactions with others, particularly other males, during non-musth periods might be a result of the feeding by people. We do not know yet what consequences these (unnecessary) human influences might have for a bull society. It is rather cheering though to think that this charismatic, peaceful (yet determined) animal may be leaving some descendants in the population.

Preferential male-male associations between male elephants during sexual inactivity (and potentially during sexual activity) might however be linked to fitness gain via information exchange, foraging facilitation, dominance resolution, social bonding and coalition formation, as described in several cognitive sophisticated, long-lived species with similar complex social organization as elephants, e.g. dolphins, some apes and several primates (Beacham, 2003; de Villiers et al., 2003; Evans, 2006)(Harcourt and de Waal, 1992; Feh, 1999; Connor et al., 2001; Alberts et al., 2003). In that case, the human impact might be enormous. One of our goals in the near future is to explore male sociality in elephants in great detail to not only be able to answer questions about its adaptive value, but also improve current conservation measures for this endangered species.


Alberts, S.C., Watts, H.E., Altmann, J., 2003. Queuing and queue-jumping: long-term patterns of reproductive skew in male savannah baboons, Papio cynocephalus. Animal Behaviour 65, 821-840.

Beacham, J.L., 2003. Models of dominance hierarchy formation: effects of prior experience and intrinsic traits. Behaviour, 140, 1275e1303. behaviour 140, 1275-1303.
Chelliah, K., Sukumar, R., 2013. The role of tusks, musth and body size in male–male competition among Asian elephants, Elephas maximus. Animal Behaviour 86, 1207-1214.

Chelliah, K., Sukumar, R., 2015. Interplay of male traits, male mating strategies and female mate choice in the Asian elephant, Elephas maximus. Behaviour DOI: 10.1163/1568538X-00003271.

Connor, R.C., Heithaus, M.R., Barre, L.M., 2001. Complex social structure, alliance stability and mating access in a bottlenose dolphin ‘super-alliance’. Proceedings of the Royal Society London. B. Biological Sciences 268, 263-267.

de Villiers, M.S., Richardson, P.R.K., van Jaarsveld, A.S., 2003. Patterns of coalition formation and spatial association in a social carnivore, the African wild dog (Lycaon pictus). Journal of the Zoological Society of London 260, 377-389.

Evans, K.E., 2006. The behavioural ecology and movements of adolescent male African elephant (Loxodonta africana) in the Okavango Delta, Botswana, University of Bristol, Bristol, pp. 779-787.

Feh, C., 1999. Alliances and reproductive success in Camargue stallions. Animal Behaviour 57, 705-713.

Harcourt, A.H., de Waal, F.B.M., 1992. Cooperation and conflict: from ants to anthropoids, in: Harcourt, A.H., de Waal, F.B.M. (Eds.), Coalitions and alliances in humans and other animals, Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp. 493-510.


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Collatoral Damage – Snares, Part 1

By DJ & SdS

An adolescent at Minneriya National Park with a snare injury on his right foreleg.

An adolescent at Minneriya National Park with a snare injury on his right foreleg.

A snare is a hunting device resembling a wire noose. It’s the cheapest and easiest way to trap wild animals. In Sri Lanka, such poached bushmeat consists of wild boar, porcupine and lesser members of the deer family and is mostly locally consumed. Hunting non-protected species (wild boar and porcupine, which are considered as vermin) is not illegal but other species like deer are protected by the local Fauna and Flora Ordinance.

Locals say snare traps are often meant for wild boars. Unfortunately, these traps do not discriminate, they also make victims of species like leopard and elephant. During the last five years, more than ninety percent of the leopard deaths occurred in hill country, Sri Lanka was due to physical injuries of ensnaring. Our observations in Uda Walawe and Minneriya National Parks suggest that it is usually less-experienced juvenile elephants are the victims of snare traps, though adults may sometimes show signs of old wounds. Trunk injuries show the animals are vulnerable even during grazing, not just while walking. Perhaps calves’ natural curiosity makes them especially vulnerable. Continue reading

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Imagining Human-Elephant Coexistence on World Elephant Day

by DJ & SdS

This elephant is on the wrong side of the fence at Uda Walawe National Park.

This elephant is on the wrong side of the fence at Uda Walawe National Park.

Human-wild elephant interactions usually bring negative outcomes. The friction stems from the never ending competition of resources, mainly land. A conflict is defined as a state of mind in which an individual experiences a clash of opposing feelings. When the two species fail to share common resources, a conflict naturally takes place.The discussion must invariably focus on those who live alongside elephants. Their relationships with wild elephants vary. While some think total rejection is the answer, others considers having elephants around is fine as long as they don’t disturb their basic lifestyle.

Is human-elephant coexistence ever possible? Continue reading

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Wildlife officers see what “evidence” means.

By DJ & SdS

Workshop participants

Officers from the DWC (middle and back rows) along with workshop facilitators (front row).

Decision making in wildlife management is always challenging; some may bias towards wildlife and others towards human needs. This conflict can be resolved only by making decisions based on facts or scientific data, which constitute a form of “evidence.” Thus, evidence-based decision making is considered the best approach to managing wildlife and habitats around the world. The opposite of this is management based on emotion, political agendas, or even expert opinion (which can often be wrong). Continue reading

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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

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Justice For Elephants in Sri Lanka: Dead or Alive

By DJ, edited by SdS

Is the future more promising?

Monks pay tribute to the slain elephants. Photo by Sanka Vidanagama

Monks pay tribute to the slain elephants. Photo by Sanka Vidanagama

Sri Lanka has been in the international news for her views towards elephants, native and exotic. Animal lovers and conservationists remain hopeful for a promising future.

January 26th marked International Customs Day. Sri Lanka destroyed nearly 1.5 tons of ivory confiscated in 2012 by the local customs, becoming the first to do so in South Asia. The shipment was en route to Dubai from Kenya and contained tusks of African elephants killed by bullets. DNA tracking later sourced the origin of tusks as Mozambique and Tanzania, which are known elephant killing fields. Despite many requests from locals to donate part of the seized stock to Buddhist temples as ornaments, customs was stern with their decision to destroy the total shipment of “Blood Ivory.” Continue reading

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Feeding Our Waste to Wildlife

By DJ, USW, and SdS


A two day old baby, with its mother and companions spotted at a dump near Minneriya National Park.

A study conducted in 2012 revealed that Sri Lankans dispose of 15 million polythene lunch sheets a day and 20 million plastic shopping bags a month. Part of this, along with other household wastes, goes to landfills. The majority is piled up in urban and remote areas at garbage dumps as identified by the Central and Local Governments. Sometimes, local residents decide the ‘best’ places to start a garbage dump. It usually starts with a single person or a one family and a small bag of waste and then the rest of the community gradually follows. Continue reading

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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

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Rehabilitated elephants can be good moms!

By Deepani Jayantha & Sameera Weerathunga

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.

[208] and calf

[208] with her newborn calf in June

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 it to the veterinary staff at the Elephant Transit Home. Continue reading

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Bring back the dead or save the living?

Thoughts For Breakfast

No, I’m not talking about zombies.

This post considers two stories in the news last week.  The first, is a new study in Science Advances by Ripple et al. finally spotlighting what we’ve known for a while: herbivores around the world are collapsing, particularly the large charismatic ones. This is bad news not just because they’re iconic species that people love to love, but because they are major components of ecosystems and their disappearance would have widespread cascading effects.

Columbian Mammoth in the George C. Page museum, Los Angeles

The second is an interview on NPR with Dr. Beth Shapiro at UC Santa Cruz on her new book How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction.  It leads with the question “If science could clone a mammoth, could it save an elephant?”

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