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

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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.

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Pink Elephants Do Exist

This amazing image is a computer generated composite based on ultrasound scans of an elephant in the womb, taken for a BBC documentary (They also show a baby dolphin and dog, linked HERE). Here is what an actual ultrasound-based photograph looks like, taken at the Whipsnade Zoo.  At just three months into the pregnancy, his little trunk is already visible! (Article linked HERE.)

The Elephant’s Chirp

Given the previous post about what shall now infamously be known as the incident of 2011, I thought it would be nice to lighten things up by sharing our other experiences with males in musth. Moreover, this is about one of those moments every scientist lives for: discovery.

First of all what is ‘musth’?  Musth is a condition that male elephants undergo after their teens which is similar to rutting in sheep and deer, in which males spend most of their time trying to find reproductive females and battling other males for dominance.  Hormonally, it means they are pumped full of testosterone.  Typically a male has to be in very good body condition to enter musth, and the older he is the longer it can last – several months in some cases – and during that time he eats very little.  You know a male is in musth when he shows reddish wet patches on the sides of his temples (just behind the eyes), and dribbles urine.  Oh yes – and he also smells to high heaven (some of us happen to think it smells rather good, musky sweet and thick…but then again, some of us also like the smell of Durian).
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Narrow Escape

Today we (Sameera & I) had a narrow escape from two big bulls who were in peak musth. It was the Kiral Ara road where the area is totally covered by large bushes, particularly Lantana. While we searching for elephants as usual, I smelled musth and was trying to find the musth males. There were lots of foot prints by a group of elephants and lots of broken branches by the road.

AVOID this elephant if you come across him.

At a bend in the road I saw a big male was crossing and I managed to identify it quickly. He was in peak musth & it was [M038], one who was attacking safari jeeps in 2008. I have seen him several times close to the jeep, but he was only aggressive one time.

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