ROAMING LONERS: INSIGHTS TO MALE ELEPHANT BEHAVIOR IN SRI LANKA

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.

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A tusker approaches two bull elephants, what happens next is intriguing

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.

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Built in 307 B.C., Kala Wewa is a wonder of primeval hydraulic engineering set against the magical and stunning backdrop of the Ritigala Mountain Range.

Breaking away 

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.

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The bull swims away from his friend, leaving him to spar with the tusker in musth in the waters of Kala Wewa in the Kala Wewa National Park. Bull elephants, especially when confronted with another in musth, opt to back away than risk a confrontation.

FACT: 

  • 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. 

 

 

The Steve Winter Experience – an Unforgettable Summer

Recap of our experience working Steve Winter & his team on a camera trap project

A glimpse into our work with documentary production and conservation, in this instance, with the famous Steve Winter and his talented team of videographers. 

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“Javana… are we wasting time trying to find a leopard in an area that nobody has even seen one?” drawled Steve Winter. His thick, American accent was heavy with skepticism as he trudged onto the Patanangala beach, in the scorching Sri Lankan heat. ‘[Mad] leopards and an American out in the noon day sun’ would become a recurring theme across Yala National Park, over the summer of 2015, when Kulu Safaris joined forces with Steve Winter and his talented team – Bertie Gregory and Alexander Braczkowski.

Steve, Bertie, and Alex were capturing imagery for National Geographic’s “Mission Critical: Leopards at the Door” – an in-depth look at how adaptable leopards are across the diverse range of habitats in which they are found around the world.

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This really fresh pug-mark indicated that this leopard had walked up from the edge of the water not long before this shot was taken… what was he doing there?!?

The project got off to a great start. As Javana (the founder of Kulu Safaris) led the group onto the beach on the first day of the expedition back in July 2015, the spirits of the jungle were kind. We came across pugmarks (leopard footprints) in the fine sand – fresh, hot-off-the-press, pugmarks. The tracks led along the beach, and up a sand dune. A quick recce along the dune (accompanied by an official park tracker in tow) led to a glimpse of a leopard sunning itself atop the far end of the sand dune, but it slunk away into the jungle before any of the team could catch up.

Steve’s question answered immediately — it was a great sign to kick off the project and to get down to some serious work over the next few months!

Why Yala?

Search Google for an image of a “leopard on a beach”, or any related combination of search terms. You will find NONE whatsoever. Sri Lanka is one of the very few places in the world to feature national parks that are host to significant wild leopard populations – Yala and Wilpattuthat have coastal boundaries.

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There was a lot of leopard activity on this stretch of beach, but with no road access few sightings have been recorded or photographed

And Steve wanted to be the first photographer to get the perfect shot of a leopard on the beach!

The significance behind the photograph related to the adaptability of leopards to whatever habitat they had to adapt to in order to survive. Yala Block I is mostly shrub jungle with quite a few rocky outcrops, and these are ideal denning sites for raising cubs. Leopards in Yala are seen mostly on these rocks, on trees, or on jeep tracks and game trails.  But because of general lack of access to the beach, no known photographic evidence of leopards on Yala’s beach areas has emerged to date.

The National Geographic documentary included footage that included leopard in Indian cities, Sri Lankan National Parks, and across to the habituated leopards of Sabi Sands private game lodges in South Africa.

Why Kulu?

So back to Steve’s question… how was Kulu so confident of finding leopard on the beaches of Yala, to make it worth their while to set up thousands of dollars worth of photographic equipment in the harsh conditions? And at which locations along the 12km coastal stretch of Block I should we set up the camera traps?

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How would YOU interpret what has happened here? Leopard tracks and Sambar tracks on the beach … 

Kulu Safaris is the pioneer in tented safaris in Sri Lanka, and our founders have been exploring the furthest corners of the island (and beyond!) since they were old enough drive 🙂

On several explorations, recces, and camping trips to remote areas, Javana and the Kulu team have come across leopard in coastal areas and around sand dunes. Frequently, they found evidence of leopards’ presence in the form of tracks, droppings, and the remnants of kills. Kulu Safaris once ran a mobile (temporary) camping operation (with explicit written permission from the Department of Wildlife) inside Block I of Yala National Park. Sightings on the beach in the vicinity of the beachside campsite indicated that Yala’s leopards were in fact, quite comfortable in this habitat.

Kulu Safaris has also fine-tuned its logistics support operations, having worked with many international researchers and filmmakers. The focal point of several of these assignments has been the well known and highly respected Toby Sinclair, who we have adopted as a dear friend of Kulu Safaris. Toby has been involved in conservation, policy guidance, wildlife documentaries, as well as being at the forefront of experiential travel industry with &Beyond — a leading safari and experiential travel company with a focus on conservation. Toby’s deep knowledge on India and Sri Lanka, as well as filmmaking, made him a valuable partner on this project, both as an advisor as well as a coordinator.

The combination of local knowledge, relationships with key personnel, mobile assets and Kulu’s logistical prowess delivered a well-oiled mechanism of support which Steve and team came to rely heavily upon over the following months.

Why Camera Traps?

For those of you not familiar with Steve Winter or his work, check out his website http://www.stevewinterphoto.com. Or better yet, go straight to his Instagram https://www.instagram.com/stevewinterphoto/ for a crash-course on the type of photography that he is known for. Steve has a distinct style to how he crafts his images. He is an avid, and expert user of camera traps to capture moments, perspectives, and realities that endangered species face in a way that the typical photographer cannot. The composition of some of his memorable photographs includes a combination of a cat’s natural habitat, often something peculiar or surprising about their behaviour, and a whole load of drama that is brought to life with his wizardry in how he use light.

 

An an epic shot like the one above is more than a show of technical genius. The message Steve tried to convey in that photograph was leopards can thrive in close proximity to humans, and to show how adaptable they are to their environment — even in an urban setting.

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Successful camera trapping requires 2 parts genius, 2 parts luck, 6 parts sweat and toil, a generous helping of local knowledge, a knack for anticipating animal behaviour, topped with a generous garnish of profanity!

Javana and Steve are both well stocked with choice profanity, so it was great to have that box ticked from the get go.

Steve figured using camera traps would be the best way to craft such a photograph. Because of the way Steve set up his traps by use a complex combination of lighting options, it afforded him the opportunity to capture an image either during the day or night – whenever the leopard chose to walk past. See Steve in action in India, watch him explaining his thinking behind a camera trap set up, in the clip below:

 

The Process…

We assisted Steve to set up camera traps at five locations in Yala Block I– three were along the beach, and two were on rocky outcrops. The equipment ranged from Bushnell camera traps mainly used for scientific fieldwork, to DSLR’s for the artistic photographs that were supported with weather-proof housing, lighting, infrared triggers, and a whole bunch of other wires and contraptions. But somehow, the dream team of Steve, Bertie, and Alex managed to camouflage and hide all traces of this man-made technology at the camera trap site, so that it wouldn’t interfere with animal behavior.

Camera set up, testing and adjusting took many long hours over many long days. Living in the jungle and having hosted many talented photographers before, we were beginning to truly understand what separates the ‘good’ from ‘great’ photographers. Preparation, persistence, creativity, imagination and perfectionist mindset were common across all of them. (And profanity too!)

A bit of luck never hurt either. Imagine you have an open stretch of deserted beach, and you’re hoping that this leopard walks through a specific 10-foot where your camera trap is set up. The difficulty of executing the perfect shot was high, and the probably of the leopard walking through the required path in the perfect light was low…. But the rarity of the shot was worth all the effort.

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What’s the probability that a leopard would walk along this exact path on such a vast stretch of beach?

To be continued…

Unfortunately, Steve was not able to get the perfect beach shot. While we were fortunate that a leopard HAD walked the desired path and the cameras had fired, it happened during a moonlight night which threw off the exposure to a less-than-NatGeo-quality-photograph.

However, Steve WILL be back in Yala for a second try, and we look forward to having him and his team soon.

What it all means for Kulu:

The silver lining to not getting ‘the’ shot, was the immense learning experience for the Kulu team – from our guides to our drivers to operational staff. Working with such revered professionals and picking up tips on their craft was priceless.

An added bonus to our guests at camp during this project was the opportunity to interact with Steve and his celebrity supporting cast! (Click the play button on our instagram clip below)

 

We were honored at the opportunity to have been able to share our knowledge on the nuances of Sri Lanka’s jungles, animal behavior and translate the whispers of the wilderness to our esteemed guests. We were also proud to have been able to efficiently execute the logistics of such a demanding project, thanks to the experiences past.

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Bertie Gregory celebrated his birthday at camp during the project

In turn, our learning were also immense, as Steve, Alex and Bertie were generous enough to share great insights into photography such as reading light, how to set up a proper camera trap, and how to manage a sighting from the perspective of a photographer or videographer.

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The Kulu Safaris Ops team with Steve’s Team

What it means for the ‘Big Picture’:

Our work with researchers (check the experiment.com link below), photographers, movie makers and documentary companies (see our work here) has reiterated the relevance of Sri Lankan’s biodiversity and natural heritage.

As a country that was originally marketed for it’s fascinating history, culture, heritage, and beaches, catching the eye of the Steve Winters of this wold is only the tip of the iceberg of just how much a hidden treasure Sri Lanka is in terms of wildlife and biodiversity. Sri Lanka’s biodiversity has been scarcely monetised (it has barely been protected!) and when it has found commercial value (such as with Whale-watching in Mirissa or with the “Gathering” in Minneriya) the process has been poorly thought out and conducted with little regulation and purpose, and most often to the detriment of the animals.

Hence, we hope that such exposure to Sri Lanka’s wildlife assets will be a catalyst for a new wave of tourism; one that finds the balance between conservation and economic value. One that appeals to the discerning client whose dollar is exchanged not just for consumption, but for involvement in conservation, in the sharing of knowledge, in sharing their energy to protect the species today that depend on us to see a more optimistic tomorrow.

Recent Conservation Work:

We are thrilled to say, that we have embarked on a new project with Alex and the Leopard Trust to support a camera-trap study of the leopards on three key national parks in Sri Lanka. More on that in our next blog post, but you can get some info (and hopefully contribute!) here:

https://experiment.com/projects/monitoring-the-endangered-sri-lankan-leopard

 

So what happened to that leopard on the beach?

Even though Steve didn’t capture “the” shot, we were able to capture some great footage, such as a group of Sambar ‘surfing’ waves – for fun no less! We also came across a large, grizzled male leopard that was not one of the usual individuals who we see on our safari rounds (around the 1:40 mark in Alex’s video below), which provoked our curiosity to find out more about the leopards in Yala.

Have a look at Alex’s clip below — all footage was taken in Sri Lanka with Kulu Safaris, during our project with Steve.

 

 

Stay Tuned!