Monsoon Days

October brings welcome rain for the people and the wildlife. This year the monsoon started as early as August, so by now everything is a luxurious green. The elephants are having an easier time because it has been wetter than usual. Perhaps for this reason, there have been a lot of babies born this year.

The rains follow a typical pattern over the course of the day – sunny and hot in the morning, showers and thunderstorms in the afternoon. Udawalawe sits at the intersection of two climate zones, which makes for strange and beautiful cloud formations with at times surreal atmospheric conditions. In the park we play games of cat and mouse with the rain clouds, trying to dodge the hyper-local downpours that are visibly framed against the brilliant sunlight. Pro tip – elephant viewing is best when there is a little bit of drizzle to cool us all off.

Monday afternoon started off well, sunny and bright. We encounter a group early on right along the main road. It’s two females with the IDs [476] and [478], along with the calf of [478]. They’re grazing placidly. [478] demolishes a small maila tree, but clips off and eats only the branches. The leaves she lets fall on the ground. Maila is well-adapted for abuse by elephants, like a hydra it sprouts multiple trunks whenever one is destroyed. Elephants also disperse its seeds far and wide so that each tree is in effect like a signpost of elephant presence.

Spotting rain overhead we veer off on a side road, but it overtakes us in a torrent. In dry weather the leather canopy of the Jeep is kept rolled up so as to let us stand up. Though we quickly unroll it during downpours, water blows in from the sides and collects in pools above our heads. As usual, we scramble to get the books and gadgets out of harm’s way. Whoever sits in the back of the vehicle is not so fortunate, and cannot escape a thorough soaking. The roads are well-rutted, in need of maintenance. Little creeks that are dry the rest of the year gurgle merrily along, larger streams gush by like so many gallons of milk tea. Ravi, who has only been with us since this year, is already a well-seasoned and careful driver. It’s at times like these that our perky little 4-wheel drive Mitsubishi Jeeps really shine, sure footed and steady despite their age. These vintage vehicles from the 1970s out-perform the newer trucks most safari services now use, which have impressive-looking tires but lack the engine or gears to match. As a result, we can venture into areas where others risk getting stuck.

We find several more groups scattered through the mid-section of the park. One female is [105], whom we see relatively rarely. She has a baby that is a few weeks old. We all crane our necks and strain our eyes to make out whether it’s a boy or girl, tricky to determine at this age due to their tiny size and intervening shrubbery. Finally there’s no doubt – it’s a boy!

Another nearby group belongs to a family seen in and around the Seenuggala reservoir, and so have been named the S unit. Among them I recognize Sarika, whose ears have large branching veins. A few of the social groups have been given alphabetical names because they were part of the initial study, started in 2005. The S unit is large, consisting of many families whose relationships to one another are not entirely clear.

The air grows still in the pauses between spells of rain, sounds seem to be amplified in the windless calm. The elephants themselves are incredibly quiet, unlike the myriad species of birds that surround us. Doves, hornbills, peacocks and innumerable other invisible avian voices fill the silence with their conversations.

Not far away, we run into some members of the T family. In contrast to the S’s, the T’s keep mostly to themselves. Today we see just two adults and two calves. One of the adults is a young female with a frisky newborn. We’re not immediately sure who she is, so we make a note to double check. The other is Tulita, by now one of the oldest individuals we recognize. She looks thin and bony, despite the abundance of foliage around her, possibly because she is down to her last pair of molars. This would mean she is at least in her sixties.

The rain tapers off, but the sky is quickly growing dark and we see no more elephants, so we head back out and call it a day.

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Elephant Ecosystems – An Earth Day Special!

Rob Nelson of Untamed Science helped us realize this long-time goal to create little animated eco-messages about elephants.  Here’s the first installment!

Elephant Ecosystems

Or: Why do we need large wild animals?

Teachers, students and would-be conservationists: you can download this video and translate it into your own language! Be sure to let us know so we can upload it to Trunks & Leaves’ channel on YouTube.  Get the animation and script hereYou’ll also find links to the scientific papers that inspired this video.

(See it in Malay here!)

Related post: Who misses the mega-fauna, if they dissappear?

Who misses the mega-fauna, if they disappear?

Guest post & graphics by Nitin Sekar, Princeton University

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A seedling germinates from elephant dung.

All around the planet, the world’s largest animal species are becoming very rare. Whether we speak of giant tortoises, large wild cows like gaur, rhinoceroses, hippos, tigers, or whales, local extinction or extreme reductions in range size and population are the norm for species that are too big or too slow-reproducing to withstand human conflict or the human hunter. Most people would probably agree that it is a shame to lose these species. But what about functionally? Are the largest animals critical to any ecological processes? When there are declines in honey bee populations, human agriculture suffers; if nitrogen fixing plants are absent from a forest, other plant species may be affected. When the largest animal species go missing, do any other species miss them? Aside from a few cases, we don’t know! This is an active area of research.

We decided to explore the role of Asia’s largest land mammal—the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus)—in seed dispersal, which helps maintain the diversity of tropical forests. Continue reading