Social interaction between a younger and an older male elephant. Photo by Nishant Srinivasaiah/FEP.Social interaction between a younger and an older male elephant. Adolescent elephants in south India are learning to adapt to human-dominated landscapes from older bulls. Photo by Nishant Srinivasaiah/FEP.

Anthropocene woes

What could happen with current rates of habitat loss, a common feature of the Anthropocene epoch that we are currently living in? If elephant home-ranges within forests are diverted to non-forest activities, they will have to adapt to this change or perish, declares Srinivasaiah.

“Elephants are survivors, hence most often they will choose alternative ways to persist, and feeding on crop fields even if it’s risky cannot be discounted,” he adds.

Elephants are arguably one of the most adaptive mammalian species and their social behaviour may vary depending on environmental conditions, agrees scientist Prithiviraj Fernando, Trustee (Chairman) of the Centre for Conservation and Research in Sri Lanka, who studies Asian elephants in the island nation and did not participate in the current study.

“For example, in Sri Lanka, large all-male groups are observed primarily in areas with high resource availability,” he said.

This study is one of the first ever studies that focus on male Asian elephant sociality and its variation in relation to habitat conditions, he wrote in an email. “Conducting studies similar in other parts of the range would help determine whether the patterns observed by Srinivasaiah and his colleagues are unique to their study area or characteristic of Asian elephants everywhere.”

Management implications in mitigating conflict

According to the authors of the study, it could also “be imperative that future attention is focused on the management and conservation of [these] young dispersing males” since it is this grouping of adolescent males that brings elephants into conflict with people in agricultural landscapes.

“Young dispersing males are very impressionable and if associated with non-crop foraging older bulls, will not learn crop-foraging behaviour or can even unlearn it,” said Srinivasaiah. Mitigation measures such as capturing key individuals within a bull group may therefore backfire, he adds, as these older and experienced bulls are essential in a male elephant society to help guide the younger bulls and also discipline them when moving across villages, thus keeping conflict to a minimum.

“The key to living with elephants may lie in understanding their social complexity and harnessing this new found knowledge to learn how to modify our own lifestyle practices to make them more compatible with the elephants’ use of an area, and be more flexible in our own approaches and behaviour towards elephants,” said Srinivasaiah.

An all-male group moving towards a banana plantation in the outskirts of Bangalore city. Photo by Nishant Srinivasaiah/FEP.
An all-male group moving towards a banana plantation in the outskirts of Bengaluru city. The newly documented behaviour could be important to plan conflict mitigating strategies.  Photo by Nishant Srinivasaiah/FEP.

CITATION:

Srinivasaiah et al 2019. All-Male Groups in Asian Elephants: A Novel, Adaptive Social Strategy in  Increasingly Anthropogenic Landscapes of Southern India. Scientific Reports, 9: 8678.

R. Sukumar, 1990. Ecology of the Asian elephant in southern India. II. Feeding habits and crop raiding patterns. Journal of Tropical Ecology 6(1).

Pokharel et al 2018. Lower levels of glucocorticoids in crop-raiders: diet quality as a potential ‘pacifier’ against stress in freeranging Asian elephants in a human-production habitat. Animal Conservation, 22 (2).

Article published by Sandhya Sekar
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