Guest post by Christin Minge
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’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.
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.
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