Why We Study The Asian Elephant

Guest post by Drs. Priya Davidar & Jean-Philippe Puyravaud, Sigur Nature Trust
All photos courtesy of Drs. Davidar & Puyravaud

During the 2017 drought in Tamil Nadu, up to 25 elephants per day were coming to drink water in our water tank.

We were trained as plant ecologists but have made the decision of venturing into research on the Asian elephant. The reasons are two-fold: first, we have a lot of respect and affection for this animal, second is our concern about the demonization of the elephant by the media where it is held responsible for intentionally causing ‘conflicts’ that harm human interests and cause loss of human lives (1). Although the destruction of its habitat, increasing human density and expansion into forest areas are routinely mentioned in most publications, interventions to arrest the loss of habitat and population connectivity is rarely considered a mitigation issue. The human-elephant ‘conflict’ (HEC) mitigation however is given a high priority for funding agencies and research (2,3), although its not clear how successful these efforts have been. Our ultimate reason to get involved in conservation biology however is somehow self-centered. If people don’t learn now to live in harmony with nature, including elephants, then our civilization will alter the biosphere to such an extent that humanity itself will suffer. To us, this is an unacceptable but possible outcome that we attempt to fight. Continue reading

E is for “Endangered”

Or why we shouldn’t take those large odd-looking animals for granted.

E is for Endangered

Step into any nursery or play room, take a quick walk down the isles of your local bookstore or library. Or just look at the clothing and toys we surround children with. They are full of images of iconic animals – giraffes, rhinoceros, hippos, lions, elephants…

We use these animals to teach the alphabet, and cherish them as beloved characters in our story books. They adorn everything from birthday cards to blankets.

What would the world be like without them? Continue reading

Call Combinations Differ Among Living Elephants

The living elephants – Asian elephat, African forest elephant and African savannah elephant.

Guest post by Michael Pardo

Ask most people what sound an elephant makes and they are likely to think of a trumpet. In reality though, elephants produce an incredible variety of different vocalizations. The most common call is a deep, pulsating rumble, so low-pitched that human observers sometimes feel it more than hear it. Elephants also roar—powerful, bellowing sounds that carry across the landscape. And sometimes, they give combination calls, in which one or two rumbles and roars are stitched together with no pause for breath.

I visited Udawalawe in 2014 to work with the Udawalawe Elephant Research Project, and was especially fascinated by these combination calls. Combining meaningful units into sequences with an additional meaning is a key component of human language, but there are relatively few examples of this phenomenon in other species. Listening to the Udawalawe elephants, I was struck by the fact that they nearly always produced combination calls in the same order: a single roar followed by a single rumble. Why was this? Could it be analogous to grammatical rules in human language? Or could it be as simple as an anatomical constraint that made it difficult for the elephants to produce a rumble before a roar? Continue reading

Dwarf elephant battles musth male!

16 June 2014 – S. de Silva

Battle1A clear sunny day, Lucy and Mickey are off in the park with Sameera while Kumara and I stay behind to catch up on office work. It’s mid-morning when Sameera calls to tell us Walawe Kota is back!  Walawe Kota is the nickname we’ve given the dwarf elephant of Uda Walawe.  This would be at least the third year now. What’s more, he’s in musth and reportedly fighting another male.  At first, the news is a bit confusing – there’s mention of a possible injury.

I’ve never seen him in the flesh though Kumara and Sameera have. I’ve only seen pictures and video clips, so I’m eager to try our luck. The park office reports he’s been spotted not far from the entrance, so we hop in our Jeep and dash off in hopes he’s still out in the open. Continue reading

How does empathy help elephants?

By S. de Silva

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A small family of elephants in Uda Walawe wanders upon a dead calf which does not belong to them. Yet they show great interest, touching and hovering over the body for hours, refusing to let any observers near until they finally decide to move off. Photos: UWERP

In the past week a paper on reassurance behavior in elephants by Plotnik et al. in PeerJ has been generating quite a bit of buzz. The study, which you can learn more about from the researchers themselves here, collected a series of observations on a group of captive elephants in Thailand documenting how they reacted when one of their companions was distressed.  It showed that when some individuals were disturbed in some way and expressed their distress, other individuals approached them and interacted in ways (such as touching, vocalizing) that suggested that they might be trying to comfort or console their companion.  Such behavior would indicate that elephants have the capacity for empathy, along with a handful of other species.

The title of this post is meant to work on at least two levels. First, we might wonder at a biological level – what is the function of the curious  behavior elephants sometimes show toward others in distress? Why might it have evolved? Whom does it benefit? Second, we might wonder at a practical level – should the capacities of elephants endow them with additional conservation value? Should it matter on the ground? So today, the first ever World Wildlife Day, I’d like to examine these two sets of questions, which are very distinct. Continue reading

Thinking like elephants

By: Lisa Barrett, Research Assistant – Think Elephants International, Inc.
Photos: Elise Gilchrist (c) 2014, Think Elephants International, Inc. www.thinkelephants.org

Plotnik3Think Science. Think Education. Think Elephants. That’s our motto at Think Elephants International (TEI), a nonprofit based in northern Thailand.  Founded by Dr. Joshua Plotnik in 2010, TEI’s aim is to conserve wild Asian elephants in Thailand by integrating elephant intelligence research with conservation education programming. We “think elephants” both because we think of elephants when we consider ways to help improve their conservation status, and we also think like elephants in designing our research paradigms. We use scientific research to understand how elephants “see” their world and how we can most effectively save their world. Dr. Plotnik has shown that elephants are both able to pass the mirror self-recognition task (Plotnik et al. 2006) and that they can cooperate together to complete a novel problem (Plotnik et al. 2011). In addition to demonstrating the amazing cognitive abilities of this species, we are also passionate about research that can directly impact conservation techniques to mitigate human-elephant conflict. Continue reading

Six year update on the Uda Walawe elephants

The Uda Walawe Elephant Research Project is now approaching eight years, a unique study of Asian elephants.  Because elephants are such long-lived animals, it takes a long time to understand them – particularly for important variables like who reproduces and how often.  Studies of wild African elephants have been conducted at multiple sites over 10 years or more (in some cases as many as 40!), but this has not been the case for the Asian species in the wild. There have been long-term records of Asian elephants  populations in captivity from places like Myanmar, where they have long been used in timber camps, and it’s interesting to see how the two compare.

This past December we published a comprehensive paper analyzing six years of data on the wild Asian elephants of Uda Walawe National Park, Sri Lanka. This paper is one of a kind as it has been difficult for researchers to successfully monitor wild Asian elephants due to the difficulty of their habitats, and the logistical challenges of conducting steady research over longer time periods.

Tailless was one of the venerable elders of our population. She was especially important for this study for two reasons: she was unmistakable even after dying due to her uniquely broken tail, and her jaw was recoverable. The wear on her teeth showed her age to be around 60 or more, meaning female elephants in Uda Walawe can potentially live out their full lifespans.

Tailless was one of the venerable elders of our population. She was especially important for this study for two reasons: she was unmistakable even after dying due to her uniquely broken tail, and her skull and jaw were recoverable. The wear on her teeth showed her age to be around 60 or more, meaning female elephants in Uda Walawe can potentially live out their full lifespans. We aged other females in the population relative to Tailless.

Continue reading