Elephants are one of the most fascinating animals to all. What are the characteristics, life cycle, ecological importance of this animal considered to be the cultural icon of India?
Dr.P.S.Easa, who has extensive experience in areas of wild life biology and conservation of Asian elephants, gives below a detail account of elephant’s life in forest and captivity with a personal touch. Dr.Easa has worked on different wildlife species and groups and has published scientific papers, books and articles. He has been member of several decisions making bodies including Elephant steering committee, Elephant Task force and Tiger Reserve and Protected Area Evaluation committee of Environment Ministry.
Elephants have always attracted my attention. When I started my career in Periyar, the life of elephants in the wild slowly started unfolding in front of me. That was the time when I started asking questions about the way the elephants manage themselves in forested habitats. That led to scanning published literature on elephants. Later, while studying elephants in Parambikkulam Wildlife Sanctuary, some of the intriguing questions about elephants were answered from my study and also from literature.
Wild elephants have a complex social structure centred on female, radiating from the motheroffspring relationship through family, bond group, clan, subpopulation, independent adult males, and, even beyond the population, to strangers. The families are composed of a social discrete composition of related individuals. These groups may separate temporarily and reunite. They may even join other social groups forming aggregations. These groupings are associated with season, habitat types, home range and social bonds. The individuals in the groups benefit from this bond. The members in the family will interact with the members from the related groups or even avoid individuals from another group. It is reported that elephants are able to distinguish strangers from the regular associates through voice recognition and scents. The social systems also lead to social learning via allomothering (care of calves by juvenile females) and recognising friends. The social and ecological knowledge, passed from the adult members, are important for the survival of the elephants in severe environmental conditions.
The males at the age of about 12 or so start moving away from the herd and join the bachelor groups. Though away from the female society, they maintain close relation with their relatives and participate in the social activities of the family at a lower intensity. These males develop skills to be with the male group and are at their prime breeding age by about 40 years. The reproduction in elephants involves highly complex chemical and acoustic signals with courtship, male-male competition, female choice, and mating. The male’s sexual activity involves the musth period (the swollen
temporal glands situated between the eye and ear and the secretion) and the dribbling strong-smelling urine.
An elephant in musth passes through a psychological transformation, aggressively interacting with other large bulls and searching for receptive females. The musth also has an effect on the relative dominance. The duration of musth depends on the age and may get suppressed by high-ranking males. Absence of older individuals may lead to occurrence of musth at younger age and may last longer. The younger males learn from the reproductive behaviour of adult males.
(Read to know more on this from July issue of Safety Messenger Magazine 2015)