This October, Sri Lanka observed World Children’s Day, and to celebrate, we’ve got a kid’s stay free offer on for the entirety of our value season in 2018, to give you more reason to book in a holiday safari with your child.
Two male elephants in Yala, named Humpy and Nelum, shadow each other over a period of months, but are careful to not make any contact or acknowledgement of the other. They turn up in the same grasslands and water holes, yet it’s as if a purposeful avoidance of the other is in place.
The first in a 12-part series touching on the unique characteristics of the island’s nomadic land giants.
With tourists in their thousands flocking to Minneriya to catch sight of the great elephant gathering, we wrapped up September by taking the alternative route, like we usually do, seeking out the land’s largest mammals at lesser known Kaudella and Kala Wewa National Parks, the latter of which is home to the island’s highest density of tuskers.
We had the privilege of having Environmental Scientist and Elephant Ethologist Sumith Pilapitiya with us, and the following piece sheds some interesting insights to characteristics of high ranking Asian male elephants.
Male Elephants are non-confrontational beings if unprovoked, adhering to a strict code of a natural hierarchical order to maintain the peace, and, they are wanderers from adolescence. Branching out between the ages of 12 to 15 years, a young male elephant begins a lifelong journey, largely alone or in temporary male groups, except when a female is in estrus when he mingles with a herd, which take him from one mate to the next, with the main objective of fathering as many offspring as it possibly can in its 60 or 70-year life span.
Friend or Foe?
Two male elephants in Yala, named Humpy and Nelum, shadow each other over a period of months, but are careful to not make any contact or acknowledgement of the other. They turn up in the same grasslands and water holes, yet it’s as if a purposeful avoidance of the other is in place. Pilapitiya is certain of a history between the two, perhaps a past relationship or a family link, but as far as evidence goes, they remain complete strangers who share the same landscape.
- The probability of a male elephant in musth raiding agricultural crops is greatly reduced (despite the bull’s testosterone hike of 5-6 times the norm) as its focus shifts from food, to finding a mate.
Ancient rules apply today
Pilapitiya’s research confirms that abiding by the ancient structures of hierarchy, allows only the strongest and most experienced males to dominate lower ranking bulls which gives them a distinct advantage during mating. The dominance hierarchy among males can be overturned, occasionally, if a lower ranking bull in musth challenges a higher ranking non-musth bull. These confrontations can sometimes end in death of a bull. This was evident in Yala National Park recently, when a high ranking, but non-musth tusker named Thilak was gored to death by a lower ranking single tusker in musth.
The state of musth confers an advantage during mating as estrus females prefer to be mated by large musth bulls. The musth male guards the estrus female and mates with her several times during her estrus period of four to six days. Towards the end of her estrus, the bull loses interest in her and moves on in search of the next receptive female, leaving the female to raise the calf by herself with help from her herd. “Males leaving their natal herd and their ‘loner’ behavior,” Pilapitiya speculates, “is nature’s way of limiting inbreeding.”
But that isn’t to say male elephants spend their non-musth time in complete solitude; It’s a good a time as any to catch up with male peers; sparring only with other males, especially those known to them, akin to old mates meeting at the bar, as seen in bull herds, as the males we caught on camera in Kala Wewa.
Life as an elephant – simple as breathing, hard as death, the joy and the sadness of being alive. Nothing was ever easy for them. But nothing was ever as strong, either.
ABOUT SUMITH PILAPITIYA
Sumith Pilapitiya was formally Lead Environmental Specialist for the South Asia Region of the World Bank and former Director General of Wildlife Conservation in Sri Lanka. He has personal research interests in elephant conservation and addressing the human elephant conflict and has been working on elephant social behavior in Yala National Park and the surrounding landscape.
Jeana’s back! Here latest story is about the rush of seeing a leopard in the wild and how you can NEVER be ‘used to it’! Even as a guide 🙂
Jeana is back, adding to her series of blog posts about her experience as a young guide at Kulu Safaris. Here, she recounts a memorable leopard sighting, but in the context that even as a guide who encounters leopard every day, each sighting is just as exciting as the first.
If I were to describe a typical safari “guide”, I imagine someone who remains cool and collected when being charged by an elephant, has a wealth of knowledgeable about flora and fauna, as well as has the confidence and people skills to share their knowledge with guests.
What struck me from the very beginning is that ‘calmness’ is merely an art we have to perfect over time. As a young guide, seeing an animal in the wild gives me the same adrenaline rush as any tourist. I have had to intentionally keep myself from exclaiming and pushing in front of my guests to catch a better view! I learnt fast that as a guide, I’m responsible for bringing to life the Sri Lankan safari experience.
As guides who lead clients on a safari, the pressure on us to track and showcase Sri Lankan wildlife is real and intense. Our typical ‘team’ on a game drive comprises of an excellent Kulu driver, who has a sixth sense for the jungle and a knack for picking routes (our drivers Preme, Rohana, Kumara, and Namal all qualify as excellent) and a good tracker to support our driver. We need to work in unison, as a cohesive team, to read the jungle for signs and clues, and to anticipate as well as react. There are many moving parts to a sighting: from the build up of following clues and tracks, to the nature of the sighting (eg: watching a comfortable relaxed leopard is far different to being in the presence of an irritable bull elephant in musth!). Also important is the positioning of the vehicle – are the guests rocking up with big zoom lenses and do we need to keep a distance to get their photographs, or are they happy to be a little closer to the animal etc. etc.
One afternoon in 2015, we ventured into Block 5 (also known as Lunugamwehera National Park) with our safari-modified Land Cruiser full of guests. Kumara was driving and I was the guide. Kumara’s eyes are magically accustomed to the jungle to such an extent that he can spot a monitor lizard in a tree hollow, while driving past (bear in mind that most often, the tree and the reptile are the same colour!!). As a guide, one of the aspects of your training is how to spot the little things, while keeping your eyes peeled for that hint of gold that’s out of place. It’s great to have a team that complements each other – knowing I can rely on Kumara and our Kulu drivers to spot animals early means I can spend more time conversing with guests.
We slowly take a bend and I’m looking out to my right, towards a small rocky outcrop where we had a recent leopard sighting, when the jeeps abruptly stops and the engine is switched off. Kumara looks back at me through his side mirror and points upwards … “Leopard in the tree” he lip-syncs with a smug grin. Lo and behold, a stunning female sub-adult leopard is lounging on a low branch of a “pallu” tree within 20 feet from our jeep!
Everyone in the jeep noticeably is in absolute awe of this beautiful creature, who is relaxed and comfortable in our presence. Thankfully, our guests appreciate the value of being quiet at a sighting and the only noises are of the jungle and soft camera clicks. I’m thrilled – Kumara and I share a silent “oh yeah” moment in the mirror while the guests are engrossed with the leopard.
The leopard yawns and licks and looks around until she finally stands up, stretches and descends elegantly down the trunk of the tree, before strolling casually into the jungle. We have the privilege of having her all to ourselves for close to half an hour.
As Kumara turns the engine back to life and we drive off, I feel the post-sighting buzz, as the jeep is full of chatter about the beautiful cat and the guests compare photographs. I share equally in their excitement and tell myself once again that no matter how many leopards I see… I will always be as amazed as the first time I ever saw one.