de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2004). Clash of the Titans. LMD. May 2004. Page 168. Volume 10, Issue 10, ISSN 1391-135X.
Privy to the formidable power-play of the majestic elephants of Uda Walawe.
Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne takes time to observe the Elephants of Uda Walawe
A golden outline lit up the dark shapes moving about the grassland. The sun was rising over the grassy plains of Uda Walawe and illuminated a herd of elephants who were still out in the open. Each hair on their skin had turned into a stiff golden rod, planted against a richly textured grey skin. The light was against us. But I suggested to the jeep driver that we stop so that I could explain a little about the social dynamics of elephant society to those who were with me. The jeep held seven photographers who were participating in Nature Camp 2004, a nearly annual photographic workshop organised by the Institute of Professional Photographers . A flotilla of jeeps had entered the park that morning carrying nearly a hundred participants. The jeeps had broken off into little convoys of three of four jeeps each. Most of the jeeps had peeled off to visit the lake front, whilst we were traversing the main road which cuts into the heart of the park.
Most the adults we were watching were likely to be females. The males leave or are driven out of the group when the reach sexual maturity around 12 – 15 years. They then form bachelor parties or become lone bulls. An elephant ‘herd’ is a hard term to explain. What most people see as a herd is described as a ‘bond group’ or ‘kin group’ by zoologists. These bond groups comprise of a number of nursery units comprising of a mother and a calf. The mother will often have an elder sister in the family unit. The adult sisters and the aunts also act as ‘allo mothers’ looking after the babies. Almost every elephant in these kin groups are related to one another in one way or the other. Leading a kin group will be the matriarch. Usually the oldest mature female. As elephants don’t stop growing, she is also likely to be the largest female. When the bond groups gather at rich foraging grounds or at water, these loose associations make the large one hundred plus herds that one encounters at places such as Minneriya National Park .
The social dynamics of intelligent mammals like elephants can be quite complex. Age, or more correctly the experience which comes with age, matters in these animals when it comes to leadership. This is because of the so called ‘cultural’ factors which influence the success of a group of animals over and above those abilities acquired through genetics. The killing of adult elephants can rob the group of valuable cultural information stored in the minds of the elders. Imagine, every decade or so a particularly severe drought is prone to affect an area. In an elephant group which inhabits such an area, the older elephants would have learnt of alternative foraging grounds they can travel to. The premature death of older elephants to poaching or in retaliation to crop raiding, can rob a family group of valuable survival skills. Another problem in Sri Lana and elsewhere in the world are the prevention of movements due to barriers being set up by people. Elephants may only need to traverse across a particular area once every so many years. But once these areas are opened up for cultivation or townships, an inevitable conflict is created.
As we discussed elephant society, I noticed one of the adults striding purposefully towards another . The other backed away and crossed the road. The first strode off, after it purposefully. “Get your cameras ready” I whispered urgently to the other photographers. It looked like two bulls had been with the family group. For an elephant bull, one of the most scarce and coveted resources is a receptive cow elephant. A cow will be in heat only for a few days at a time. They are not receptive when they have young of less than a few years old. So a mating opportunity with a cow may only be available for a few days every four years. The cows advertise their receptive state using a combination of media. Some of their auditory communication will be out of the range of human ears, as they communicate by infra sound. They also use behavioural cues as well as olfactory (smell) cues. The use of infrasounds allows elephants to communicate over a distance of several kilometers. Thus seemingly mysteriously, bulls appear to converge from far away and in all directions to a receptive cow.
Most of the calves are fathered by the bulls who are over forty years of age. A combination of physical prowess and social maturity gives them an edge over the younger bulls. As the two warring bulls strode past the jeep, instinctively we withdrew our heads into the jeep. They walked past just a few feet away from us. A dark, sticky liquid oozed from their temporal gland situated between the ears and eye. This condition is known as ‘musth’ and marks a period of heightened sexual activity and aggression. Their legs were also stained dark by the testosterone rich urine which constantly dribbles down from bulls in musth. The two bulls faced each other off in the grassland. The old bull strode towards the younger who backed off. Young bull began to give a show of strength by pushing against a tree. Old bull was not intimidated and came up and began a staring match. They extended their trunks and held their trunks. Perhaps the dispute would be settled amicably. In fact, they were testing each other for the strength of their chemical signals. The relative strength would be a fairly reliable indicator of the length to which the other would be prepared to go if things turned physical and nasty. Old bull began to head butt the young bull who gave in and withdrew, and stood apprehensively with his trunk coiled. One more purposeful approach from old bull and young bull decided discretion was the better part of valour and walked away. The family of cows and calves crossed the road, shielding the vulnerable young between the adult females. Old bull turned his attention back to the family. Long after he is dead, his personality would live on in the genes of a new generation.
The writer is the CEO of a wildlife & luxury travel company who has written and photographed several publications on wildlife. With weekly appearances in the media, he is one of the most visible wildlife & tourism personalities. To subscribe to his free, wildlife e-newsletter, e-mail him at with “subscribe wildlife news” in the message header.