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.

At first he didn’t compete with them directly – the Kalthota tusker arrived in the park some time in January when it was flush from the rains, and left again before the grass turned yellow. Then came Raja, who only showed up during his musth, and dominated the dry season. Sumedha would arrive some time later in the year, barely overlapping with Raja and generally avoiding him if they happened to be in the park at the same time. Unlike Raja, who was perpetually riddled with gunshot wounds and other signs of crop raiding, Sumedha seemed to keep a low profile – he never had a scratch on him. And also unlike Raja, who took a great interest in us, Sumedha tended to ignore vehicles and people completely, as if they weren’t even there. Appearances aside, Sumedha seemed a mild personality.

Sumedha in a grainy still frame from video taken in 2006.

The Kalthota tusker stopped showing up in Udawalawe after some years, though he still roamed outside the park. As the years wore on, Sumedha grew bolder and seemed to be taking more risks as well. In 2008 he lost the tip of his tail to what might have been a burn, meaning he had tangled with people. His appearances in the park overlapped with Raja more and more. We started seeing the two of them more frequently within short intervals.

And then in 2009, Raja had his fateful encounter with a sharp object that nearly severed the tip of his trunk. Although such injuries don’t appear to be fatal, Raja seemed to lose his competitive edge over Sumedha. Maybe the cut prevented him from eating well enough to build his strength, or maybe it just injured his pride. For the first time, we saw the two tuskers fighting actively. Raja displayed fresh wounds which appeared to be from the other’s tusks! Raja’s dynasty had come to an end, he’d been dethroned. No doubt, he had sired many calves including more tuskers, over his lengthy tenure. But the reign of Sumedha was about to begin. We never learned what happened to Raja, but he never came back to Udawalawe following this ouster.

Sumedha, as I mentioned, had always been well-built. He tended to dominate over other tuskless bulls, as Raja had done. They never dared challenge him, and Sumedha was free to mingle with the ladies as he pleased. In 2011 we saw him consorting with Sandamali, who was an ETH release (read about her here). Her ETH friend [832] had had a tusker calf, who may have been Sumedha’s as well. But other tuskers did appear from time to time. First there was Ghost, a known crop raider that the Wildlife Department translocated into the park in 2011. Although Ghost stuck around for a few years breaking fences and raiding the sugarcane plantations, he seems to have eventually moved off. Then in 2016 another old injury-ridden tusker made himself known. This one, we came to learn, was likely the Hambegamuwa tusker.

This year, 2017, we saw Sumedha again in August. He was in characteristically good condition, and showing all the signs of musth. He had been seen by trackers and tourists in July as well. But something strange happened. His musth usually lasted a few months, and after that he’d be gone. In 2010 his musth had been some time in September. In each subsequent year, it moved up earlier and earlier until it now appeared to start in July. He had effectively taken over Raja’s spot!

Back in the ’80s and ’90s, Joyce Poole’s studies on African elephants (e.g. here and here) were showing that the male reproductive period of musth was not necessarily a fixed state. Older, competitively superior males could intimidate younger males to the point that they suppressed expressing (or signaling) their musth condition. Was something like this going on in Udawalawe?

We were in for a bigger surprise. Sumedha stuck around far longer than he ever had before – August, September, October, November came and went, he was still in musth. He was last seen in early November, still showing the urine dribbling characteristic of musth, though the temporal glands on either side of his head were drying up and he had started to eat again and was likely coming out of it. That would make it a whopping 5-month long musth period! The longest we’ve ever recorded in Udawalawe. What was different about 2017?

Sameera offered a plausible theory. He has been working with the wildlife authorities and local communities long enough that he’s become a contact point for all elephant goings-on in the area. So he was among the first to find out that the Hambegamuwa tusker had died of his wounds back in August. By sheer coincidence, the Kalthota tusker had also met his end – he had a penchant for climbing high rocks and hillsides, and given his venerable old age, it appeared he had fallen accidentally to his death. Although these two bulls didn’t contest Raja inside the park, perhaps their deaths had somehow left Sumedha entirely unchallenged. Could his epic long musth be a response? Will it happen again next year? We’ll just have to wait and see!

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Fencing the conflict

by DJ and USW

A female elephant was seen on the corridor - note the gut shot wounds

A female elephant was seen on the corridor – note the raised bumps on the skin, which are suspected to be old gunshot wounds.

Uda Walawe elephants have access to nearby protected areas (managed by the Department of Wildlife Conservation) through two separate “corridors;” Dahayyagala, connecting the park to the proposed Bogahapattiya Sanctuary on the northern boundary and Wetahirakanda, connecting it to Lunugamwehera National Park on the eastern border. Elephants can be found outside the park pretty much all along the border except for the southern section. The identified corridors, however, are too narrow at some places (500-1000m). Corridor boundary is marked by electric fencing. The existing fences sometimes run too close to human settlements and at other times they run through forested habitats leaving elephant needs (like water holes) outside the corridor. In such cases, those who maintain electric fences have to walk into elephant habitats for a few kilometres daily and that doesn’t sound practical (as a result, some parts of the fence easily go non-functional).  Given the inefficiency of fenced boundaries and escalating human elephant conflict in the area, the Department has taken a very timely decision to re-define corridors and upgrading electric fences to better serve both humans and elephants. The plan is that eventually the corridors will be broadened while the existing fences will be lengthened and strengthened. Continue reading

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Changing Shades of Green

by DJ and USW

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Picture taken in 2011 shows scattered trees and grass species in between

If your garden is left unattended it grows wild after several seasons. Eventually, there will be a mini-forest of a few species carefully chosen by a natural process. This is an ecological succession. The same takes place in the wild. Once a habitat is disturbed but then left undisturbed by humans, it goes through a series of structural changes in the vegetation with time. Continue reading

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Evolving A More Egalitarian Elephant

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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

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Collateral Damage Part 2 – Bycatch

By DJ & SdS

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In the fishing industry, the term “bycatch” refers to species that are entrapped in fishing nets that are not the intended target species.  Such victims, many of whom may die and simply be discarded overboard, represent a terrible waste of life.

Well, in Uda Walawe the bycatch this time was an elephant. Continue reading

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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

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Collateral Damage Part 1 – Snares

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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