Evolving A More Egalitarian Elephant


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].

Our study compared the network properties of dominance interactions exhibited by adult female Asian elephants in Sri Lanka and a similarly-aged cohort of female African savannah elephants in Kenya.  We found that Asian elephants showed less than a third the amount of dominance behavior as their African counterparts. As a result, it was impossible to construct orderly hierarchies among individuals, in contrast to the African females, who did show such a pattern. We then went further to test whether there might be some linear order among individuals of different age groups or social groups. We found that while there while older individuals did tend to ‘win’ confrontations more often in both populations, Asian elephants showed a greater tendency for reversed outcomes where younger individuals dominated older ones. We also showed no real order by social group. In contrast, African elephants showed significant order by both age and social group.

PowerPoint Presentation

The dominance network of Asian elephants (left) is more sparse than that of African elephants (right) and has proportionately more age-reversed dominance (red arrows). Each circle is a female aged 10 to 60+ years, with larger circles being older individuals and colors representing social groups.

What might explain these differences? The classic view of elephants is based on decades of research on African savannah elephants, in which females and calves form highly cohesive families with very clear age-based dominance hierarchies.  Such societies are favored under the ecological conditions savannah elephants typically find themselves in, namely where rainfall is unpredictable and resources are widely dispersed. These environments also contain large predators and there is a lot of competition among elephants for access to the best and safest areas. Knowledge of resources, potential competitors and predators may be built up over many years, with the presence of older individuals benefiting younger ones. But what if the environment is wetter and more predictable, with fewer predators to worry about? Asian elephants live in more productive and predictable environments where food and water were historically not difficult to come by. The studied population, having evolved on an island free of large non-human predators such as tigers, also had little to fear. Perhaps as a result, they show more dynamic social relationships than African elephants [2]. We hypothesize that this frees up individuals to make their own movement decisions, without needing to rely on the knowledge of others, or tolerate being dominated by them. We call this phenomenon “ecological release”.

One wonders then why elephants exhibit any dominance behavior at all, and how they resolve conflicts in the absence of clear hierarchies. We suggest that Asian elephants use dominance signals for a different purpose: establishing who belongs in the social group, and excluding those that do not. Even though Asian elephants have very flexible social relationships [3] that can vary from day to day, it doesn’t mean they are completely unselective about their companions – on the contrary, they typically associate with only a specific subset of animals, and can show outright hostilities when they run into someone entirely unfamiliar. Rather than establishing dominance hierarchies, which are impractical between social groups that rarely interact, Asian elephants probably simply avoid unfamiliar individuals.

The flip side of this is that when elephants are packed into ever smaller areas due to loss of habitat, it may escalate the potential for conflict in a species that is otherwise averse to confrontation.  This might explain some dire observations of the outcome of management interventions. For instance, in southern Sri Lanka several hundred elephants – including females and calves – were driven from their home ranges into a National Park in an effort to reduce human-elephant conflict and make way for development. While the result is not well-documented, many animals reportedly died as a result. This mystified wildlife authorities as well as conservationists, who saw no apparent shortage of food or water in the National Park. Yet elephants languished at the perimeter of the park, trying to make their way back home, apparently choosing death by starvation over exploring the new area. Our findings suggest a possible explanation – even though elephants are not territorial, strictly speaking, their daily survival must depend on finding adequate food and water while carefully avoiding conflict with other unfamiliar elephants. When driven into a wholly unfamiliar area, even one with plenty of food and water, it’s possible they couldn’t penetrate the invisible social barrier presented by the resident elephant population.

Asian elephants and African savannah elephants belong to two different genera, separated by six million years of evolution. That’s comparable to the split between humans and chimpanzees!  This comparison gives a fresh take on socioecological theories which have long sought to explain how a species social structure is related to its environment.


Access the paper here.



[1] de Silva, S., Schmid, V., & Wittemyer, G. (2016). Fission–fusion processes weaken dominance networks of female Asian elephants in a productive habitat Behavioral Ecology DOI: 10.1093/beheco/arw153

[2] de Silva, S., & Wittemyer, G. (2012). A Comparison of Social Organization in Asian Elephants and African Savannah Elephants. International Journal of Primatology DOI: 10.1007/s10764-011-9564-1

[3] de Silva S, Ranjeewa AD, & Kryazhimskiy S (2011). The dynamics of social networks among female Asian elephants. BMC ecology, 11 PMID: 21794147 Full text and PDF.

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Collateral Damage Part 2 – Bycatch

By DJ & SdS


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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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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