A Trunkful of Puzzles

By Lizzie Webber, University of Stirling 

2013: Sub-adults trunk wrestling with [t458] and [c458_12] nearby

2013: Sub-adults trunk wrestling with [t458] and [c458_12] nearby.

After studying the elephants in Uda Walawe National Park (UWNP) for three field seasons, many of their IDs and personalities are now firmly rooted in my memory. This has allowed me to continue unravelling some identity puzzles in my study while bridging together my field seasons from 2011, 2012 and 2013.

In 2013, [c458_12] (the calf of [458], born in 2012) was one of the most playful characters of the season. A male calf, he was often off with the older crew of juveniles and sub-adults (possibly cousins) who hung out with his family unit.

His older brother, [t458] (tusker calf of [458]; we’re not sure of his birth date), has stunning tusks for a youngster and was instantly recognisable in the crowd. On this one particular day of elephant-banter, my focal session was stopped as [c458_12] had run out of sight in a forest of legs belonging to sub-adults play-sparring.  As I waited by the reservoir for him to reappear, I had scribbled on my notebook to look into whether I’d studied [t458] in 2011. [c458_12] meanwhile not only failed to reappear amongst the sparring and trumpeting trunk wrestlers, but the sub-adults and juveniles had become so excitable in their play that they suddenly caused the entire group to run back into the forest with enthusiastic squawks and trumpets, ending my evening!

Back with my laptop, I realised that [t458] had indeed been around in my earlier fieldtrips, although not part of my study cohort; which includes over 100 calves. I was delighted that I’d ID’d him from one of my favourite 2011 photographs, of a group under a tree while he trunk-wrestled with a younger calf.

2011: Group taking mid-day shade as [t458] trunk wrestles with younger calf

2011: Group taking mid-day shade as [t458] trunk wrestles with younger calf.

2011: [t458] play fighting with younger calf.

2011: [t458] play fighting with younger calf.

But the ID number 458 continued to play in my head. Until it dawned on me that I didn’t simply recognise [458] because of her boys. Immediately bouncing through my notes, I confirmed that [458] was in fact one of my first elephant encounters in UWNP off the beaten track. [458] had arrived alone alongside the jeep, foraging as she’d wandered towards us as we quietly watched her, captivated. Emotions soared in my first moments so close to a wild elephant.

2011: Entranced by [458] on my first field season as she quietly ate grass beside our jeep.

2011: Entranced by [458] on my first field season as she quietly ate grass beside our jeep.

I also recall Shermin having told me, back in 2011, that [458] had a calf but that she was occasionally seen without him. Turns out this would have been a certain familiar [t458]!

I’m back in the UK now, organising the rest of my data, but the Uda Walawe elephants are still very real and continue to excite me. Unravelling another calf ID puzzle often results in me running around looking for someone to high-five or trunk wrestle!

Family portraits: [458] with [c458_12] and [t458] in 2012.

Family portraits: [458] with [c458_12] and [t458] in 2012.

 

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One Response to A Trunkful of Puzzles

  1. Pretty cool detective work!

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