The Secret Life of Elephants

We have the pleasure of watching elephants in broad daylight in precious few places like Udawalawe, where they are habituated enough to be placid and tolerant of onlookers. Indeed, one can get rather spoiled in this particular Park, because even the birds are unafraid and will happily sit and pose for your clumsy photograph from inches away. At times, certain exhibitionist pachyderms even appear to put on a show for the gawking crowds:

But all is not paradise.

Outside the park, beyond the gaze of tourists, most animals lead a secretive life. This is no less true of elephants, because whenever an elephant encounters a human outside the confines of a protected area, is an opportunity for disaster. In turn, we often only register the presence of an elephant when there has been an actual conflict, or at least, a near miss.  But the mere presence of elephants need not result in conflict – at least, this is what one hopes. Because elephants need to be able to travel between protected areas, and even use land that is not formally protected. Not every piece of usable habitat will sport a bevvy of admiring crowds. And so we often hear the term “coexistence,” used to describe an aspiration: that people and elephants can share the landscape and live together. Is it possible?

We want to understand how elephants and people are using landscapes outside protected areas. Our focus is on the area around the eastern boundary of Udawalawe National Park, known as the Wetahirakanda corridor, which connects Udawalawe and Lunugamwehera. So we’re turning to a stealth tool that has been gaining in popularity: camera traps.

Typically, camera traps are placed along game trails or confined spaces where one is fairly sure animals must pass through.  Or else they are located at point resources, such as water holes, which again offer a fairly high probability of activity. But it’s never a sure bet – one can place a camera out in the middle of nowhere and there is no guarantee that your species of interest will happen to walk past it.

Less than ten years ago, people scoffed at the idea of using camera traps to observed elephants because it appeared they always discovered them, resulting in rather expensive damage to the equipment.  Possibly, it was because older models of camera traps drew attention to themselves by emitting tiny amounts of light. Or perhaps it was that certain remote populations of elephants were hostile to unfamiliar objects, because they were so unaccustomed to encountering them. Whatever the case, camera traps have by now been used widely throughout the world, but usually they are set low to the ground and intended to catch elusive species like carnivores. But in some cases, camera traps have also spotted elephants.

We weren’t sure what, if anything we would get. And even if we did, would the pictures be clear enough to enable us to identify the individuals in them? Well the results are in, and they were quite a nice surprise:

This clip shows an adult male mozy up to our camera and leave us a nice gift in the form of dung. Around two hours later a young female discovers it and calls over the rest of her family in excitement. They all investigate it with great interest, including tiny babies that poke their trunks around, until they wander off after ten minutes. What’s wonderful about this sequence is not just that the animals are clear and easy to identify, but that it gives us a little glimpse of behavior, a late night story in the secret world of elephants.

But what you’re about to see next really got us excited:

This series, which takes place over a bit less than a month, shows that people and elephants are perfectly capable of using the same spaces. On the left is a sanctuary, split off from the adjoining forest thanks to an electric fence that is meant to keep the elephants “inside” (more about that here). But in fact elephants find their way around the fence just fine. We saw such scenes in more than one place, and calculated the time difference between elephant and human activity. The shortest interval? 1 minute 30 seconds. Given the frequency with which people and elephants use the same areas, it’s astonishing that there aren’t more accidents. This is probably because elephants wisely avoid people at these locations.

Findings like this give us hope that coexistence with elephants is not just possible – it’s already the norm in many places. We just have to ensure that elephants keep having the space they need, then people can stay safe too.

We gratefully acknowledge support for this work from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums/Disney CF and US Fish & Wildlife Asian Elephant Conservation Fund.

March 3rd is officially World Wildlife Day. From now until Earth Day, we’ll bring you more upbeat stories like this under #ElephantOptimism.

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Stay tuned…


About asianelephant

Promoting understanding of Asian elephant behavior, evidence-based conservation, and the coexistence of people with wildlife and wilderness.
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