Monday, August 26, 2013

Massive Migration

     Elephants are the largest land mammals on earth, and big animals need lots of space.  We know that elephants migrate annually to find food and water, and that the matriarchs lead their herds from year to year (learn more by reading previous entries in our blog!).  However, the full migratory paths of both Asian and African elephants is neither well studied nor well known.  There are a number of challenges in studying these routes, from overcoming technological hurdles to combating bureaucratic red tape.

Many elephants need many resources.  Photo by Rebecca Shoer

      Elephants require large migratory  ranges for a number of reasons.  Most obviously, they consume huge amounts of food every day, and must move when an area's resources are depleted.  In addition, female and male elephants have almost entirely separate social lives, and migrate independently of one another (and thus their migratory routes rarely overlap).  Male elephants may travel alone or in loose bachelor herds, but obviously must return to a female herd to mate.  What is the typical range for an elephant, then?  It seems to vary over subpopulations of elephants, but some estimates have been made, especially in India:

Home  ranges of over 600 km² have been recorded for females in south India (Baskaran et al., 1995). In north India, female home ranges of 184–326 km² and male home ranges of 188–407 km² have been recorded (Williams, 2002). Smaller home range sizes, 30–160 km² for females and 53–345 km² for males, have been recorded in Sri Lanka (Fernando et al., 2005).
(IUCN Red List)
     However, such estimates are few and far between, and most research has been done in few select areas of Asia.   Why is this? First of all, Asian elephants live in a mixed habitat of grassland and jungle, making them quite difficult to locate and track in the wild.  Some African elephants have been micro-chipped or radio collared so that they might be tracked, but these devices are both expensive to purchase and require a veterinarian to install safely.   Second, as elephants have such large home ranges, they inevitably cross human-created borders, either between states or countries.  This creates a challenge for both the migrating elephants and the researchers attempting to track them.  In 1999 "The Old Elephant Route" project was started in the Patkai Range, along the border of India and Myanmar (Burma) to assess the range and activity use of this known migratory corridor (Chowta et al).  Unfortunately, the project suffered constant setbacks due to the political situation in Myanmar.  Although they were eventually able to gather enough data through India to map the migration patterns of some elephants, they still had to struggle both with hauling equipment in the wilderness and recruiting volunteers during a time of political turmoil.

Modified from the Aane Mane Foundation

     Finally, the major obstacle in studying elephant migration is the tremendous level of habitat loss that has occurred and is still occurring in southeast Asia.  Even if elephants still attempt to follow their traditional migration routes, they have to traverse over farmland, through villages, and across roads.  In northern India, a highway was constructed in 2009 that directly cut through a four mile wide known migratory corridor (Novak, 2009).  This corridor served as the only route by which the roughly 1,000 elephants residing in that region could access a critical water source.  In Thailand, only 15% of the natural forest still remains, and the 3,000 wild elephants that still live in the country are isolated in national parks.  Even if we were able to track their migration routes, such routes have most likely been so altered due to human influence that the elephants no longer traverse the large areas they once did.  However, in countries like India where both large wild elephant populations and large natural areas still exist, it is critical that we identify where these elephants travel in order to protect those areas from human development.  It is not enough to protect areas that elephants may be in today, or tomorrow, but the entire area that an elephant may use in an entire year.  Unfortunately, this is rapidly becoming a remote possibility in southeast Asia, as the human population continues to increase.  The urgency of the elephant's situation cannot be overstated.

Novak, Sara. 2009. "The Plight of the Asian Elephant--New Highway Checkpoint Threatens to Cut Off Elephant Life Line."
Chowta, P. 2010. "The Old Elephant Route."  Aane Mane Foundation.

Choudhury, A., Lahiri Choudhury, D.K., Desai, A., Duckworth, J.W., Easa, P.S., Johnsingh, A.J.T., Fernando, P., Hedges, S., Gunawardena, M., Kurt, F., Karanth, U., Lister, A., Menon, V., Riddle, H., Rübel, A. & Wikramanayake, E. (IUCN SSC Asian Elephant Specialist Group) 2008. Elephas maximus. In: IUCN 2013. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2013.1. <>. 

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Might makes right (unless you're in musth)

I’ve heard a lot of excuses for not showing up to an experiment, but today has to be the first time “I’m in a hormonal rage” has ever made the list. Somjai, one of the newest and largest members of the GTAEF family, is a magnificent bull elephant in his early twenties. He’s currently a research superstar: easy to train, quick to understand the task, and delicate with our equipment, leaving behind only copious amounts of snot where other elephants have laid down a trail of broken hinges and battered bars. This mild-mannered gentleman makes it easy to forget that bull elephants can be extremely dangerous to work with, especially when they enter their annual state of musth.

Photo credit: Elise Gilchrist

Pronounced with a silent h (and a healthy amount of respect), musth is a periodic condition unique to male elephants, lasting anywhere from a few weeks to several months and characterized by aggressive behavior and a spike in reproductive hormones. Physical signs of musth include drastic swelling of the temporal glands (small holes located between the ear and the eye on the elephant’s head) which begin to leak a pungent, oily liquid. Some hypothesize that this free-flowing ooze, containing temporin, travels all the way to the elephant’s mouth and that the taste of their secretions is part of what drives the bulls’ heightened sense of agitation. Even more attractively, a bull’s genitals begin to leak urine almost constantly, eventually giving the penis a greenish tinge. Though not exclusive to musth, anorexia, dehydration and drowsiness can also commonly occur during this time.

Leaking temporal gland of a bull in musth
via Wikimedia Commons

Behaviorally, a bull in musth is unpredictable, irritable, and highly aggressive, posing a danger to any human, elephant, or unfortunately placed object they come into contact with. Testosterone production skyrockets, and some estimates place hormone levels at 60 times their normal amount! Males in musth also produce special musth rumbles, which are louder, lower, and much more guttural than a typical greeting rumble. Though males show increased signs of virility during this state, as well as increased investigation of females’ reproductive state, musth is not necessary for conception; males successfully impregnate females when not in musth, casting some doubt on the theory that the condition is entirely sexual in nature.

Scientists are still unsure of what triggers musth, though some evidence exists that the presence of females can encourage its manifestation. Older males have also been shown to inhibit musth in males who are just maturing, or at least curb some of their more aggressive impulses. The onset of musth is typically earlier in captive males than those in the wild. A teenage bull’s first musth is usually his shortest, and the temporal gland secretions smell sweet like honey, which is thought to signify their status as non-threatening to older, larger males. As the male matures, his periods of musth lengthen and become more regular, so that by the time a bull is in his thirties, his musth is occurring around the same time each year. There is no coordinated musth in males, though a higher number will enter the state around the rainy season. 

Male in musth investigating female
via Wikimedia Commons

This absence of synchronicity is thought to contribute to genetic diversity, since a male in musth has priority access to the females. Even the most dominant bull is second in line behind a lusty, musth-y male when it comes to courting a mate. If multiple bulls are in musth at the same time, priority once again falls to the most dominant; because the annual musth schedules of males in the bachelor herd are naturally staggered, the system affords a larger number of bulls the chance to reproduce, adding more variation to the gene pool.

The energetic demands of musth also ensure that only males who are healthy enough to maintain the heightened physiological state can take advantage of this reproductive strategy. Producing astronomical amounts of testosterone places a huge burden on the elephant’s body, requiring them to consume vast quantities of food rich in calories. In fact, the duration of musth is often shortened in captivity by providing the male with only a bland diet of grasses. By cutting out the typical treats like fruits and sugarcane, caretakers can reduce the period of musth to a few weeks. Without the sugars and carbohydrates, the elephant isn’t able to maintain the hormonal overproduction.

Male in musth
via Wikimedia Commons

So what does this mean for the gallant Somjai? His breakfast will be a bit more bland and boring, and his social calendar will be suddenly clear for the next couple of weeks. As much as we love watching his mind at work, it is safer for all people and pachyderms involved if Somjai spends his musth filled days up on the mountain, alone with some birds, trees and his hormonal angst.


Asian elephant, Elephas maximus. (2008, July). Retrieved from

Fowler, M., & Mikota, S. (2006). Biology, medicine, and surgery of elephants. Ames, IA: Blackwell Publishing.

Indian elephant in musth by Yathin S Krishnappa via Wikimedia Commons
Asian elephant by Herrick via Wikimedia Commons
Thai bull elephant in musth by OxOx via Wikimedia Commons

Monday, August 12, 2013

The History of “Mahout-ing” (in a nutshell)

By Lisa Barrett

“I said what I said, I meant what I meant. An elephant’s faithful—100 percent.”
–Dr. Seuss, Horton Hatches the Egg

It’s difficult to believe that I’ve been working for Think Elephants International (TEI) for over two months now! I am learning so much—Thai culture do’s and don’t’s, elephant personalities and facts, how to educate guests, conduct social cognition research—and am excited to continue learning!

What’s more, I learned how to be a mahout. Together with the other new research assistants, I participated in mahout training run by the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation (GTAEF) and Anantara Golden Triangle. This was the perfect activity, since I have been fascinated by the elephant-mahout relationship ever since I saw my first elephant here (and despite the fact that history has never been my favorite subject). From the constant care provided for these majestic animals—and even physically living beside the elephant in some cases—to the extensive commands they remember, to the mahout’s outfit, I was struck by such a unique profession. What are their jobs like? How did they start being a mahout? Do they like being a mahout? While I hope to find individual mahouts’ answers to these questions during my time here, I decided to first gain a better understanding of the history of the mahout-elephant relationship.

 A mahout and his elephant here at GTAEF.

“Mahout” comes from the Hindi words mahaut and mahavat, meaning “elephant driver,” and it even traces back to Sanskrit “mahamatra.” Historically, it was a profession for men (who passed down the tradition—and the elephant—to their son). Today, on the other hand, being a mahout in Thailand is losing its prestige. In fact, results from an informal poll revealed that of 200 civil service mahouts (mostly sons of mahouts), not a single mahout wanted his own sons to follow in his footsteps, and not a single son planned to do so. It is interesting to compare this view to that of the West, where some may liken mahouts to cowboys who live and grow up alongside an elephant calf and who naturally feel pride toward their profession and animal.

Captive Thai elephants have been interacting with humans for thousands of years, with kings first using them to help fight wars and then as beasts of burden in the logging industry. In this way, it is important to consider the history of Thailand when looking at the mahout-elephant relationship. The logging industry provided elephants with steady work during the day, after which they returned to the jungle and their natural social groups. Ironically, however, as they worked and earned money for their mahouts, they were also destroying their own habitat. Logging was so widespread, that it left much area treeless and prone to flooding. Logging was thus banned in 1989, and there were around 20,000 unemployed elephants and mahouts who had one predominant skillset. Around this time, the tourism industry boomed for elephants. Mahouts trained their elephants to beg for food, give rides, paint, and even play music.

The mahout village at GTAEF.
Photo by: Rebecca Shoer

This summarized history brings us to today’s mahout-elephant relationship. Specifically, I am speaking about the relationships I have seen firsthand as a research assistant for TEI (thus far) working with the elephants of GTAEF. GTAEF seeks to rescue elephants from street jobs and poor conditions by providing a home for them and their mahout. Mahouts receive a steady salary, health care, education for their children, and veterinary care for their elephant. This mission is integrated in  GTAEF’s model of renting elephants from their mahouts. By renting elephants, mahouts are discouraged from taking another elephant out of the wild (as they might if GTAEF were to buy their elephant from them and the mahout sought to make the most out of their profit).

P. Nang (the only female mahout in the Golden Triangle), and her 7-year-old elephant, Pumpui.

Mahouts must control their elephant to ensure the safety of the elephant, humans, and other elephants around them. Mahouts employ a few different tools, besides training their elephant to obey over 40 commands, to control their elephant. Mahouts’ use of the bull hook is as ancient as their relationship with the elephant. This traditional tool serves to touch pressure points in order to direct the elephant and can be compared to a riding stick used with horses. While it can be used inappropriately (at some low-quality elephant camps, for example), it is not used with the intention to cause harm. 

One may critique these tools to say they are harsh. However, you have read previously in this blog that different elephants exhibit different personalities- and some can be unpredictable. Furthermore, to continue caring for elephants in captivity, there must be a somewhat reliable means of ensuring safety of the humans around them, and the bull hook is the only way to do this. Ideally, there would not be a need for any tools or commands, but this is just not realistic. We are optimistic, though, that positive reinforcement will become more widespread among mahouts, especially since GTAEF has begun target-training elephants using positive reinforcement from mahouts.

A mahout bathes his or her elephant at least twice a day.

Mahouts must also bathe, feed, and clean-up after their elephant. And, they must be in very good physical condition—something I can attest to after climbing up the hill to retrieve an elephant in the morning!

Elephants eat up to 200kg of food per day!

More generally, this rather under-studied relationship demonstrates cooperation between humans and animals—perhaps one of the longest-standing examples of this.

 Lair, R.C. (1997). Gone astray: The care and management of the Asian elephant in domesticity. Bangkok, Thailand: FAO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific. 

Monday, August 5, 2013

When It’s Raining Extinctions, Who Has The Largest Umbrella To Sit Under?

By: Elise Gilchrist         

            We are currently losing species from our planet at an alarming rate. Asian elephant numbers are declining for a myriad of complex issues including habitat loss, human-elephant conflict and poaching for ivory. In the last seventy years at least half the population in the wild has been lost (IUCN Redlist) and at current rates could go extinct in the coming decades. It is a disturbing truth that has no simple answer. The field of conservation biology looks into issues like this one in order to try and find solutions that could keep species, like elephants, and their habitats sustainable. The problem faced by many conservationists is that there are few resources allocated to this work, which requires careful planning, and frugal spending to ensure the biggest impact is achieved.

Now if you’re a smart businessman, you want to get the most bang for your buck. You want to make a shrewd investment that gets the highest yield for the lowest cost. If we take this same strategy and apply it the business of conservation then we want to invest in what has been termed an umbrella species. An umbrella species is one whose requirements and needs overlap and include those of many others. Often times this is a species that has a large range and requires high-quality habitat. The theory is that if an umbrella species and its habitat are protected then many other species sharing that ecosystem will be protected as well. For example, if we protect the habitat used by one population of Asian elephants in Thailand we may in turn protect habitat for leopards, gibbons and king cobras!

Allotting resources to surveying, monitoring and protecting a species can add up to a large chunk of money and with new species becoming endangered everyday there is not enough to go around. This fact is especially true for smaller, “less glamorous” species, like reptiles and amphibians that do not get the same adoration often bestowed upon charismatic mega fauna, like pandas and elephants. This is another reason why using the umbrella species strategy can help send a little help to the underdog. Campaigning to raise money for a smart, playful population of Asian elephants is often more successful than the campaign to save a rare, creepy looking beetle.

So at a time when our world is raining extinctions do elephants have a large enough umbrella to sit under? Due to the fact that elephants require huge expanses of land and enjoy a mosaic habitat, meaning they utilize diverse territory ranging from grassland to dense forest, protecting elephants would offer protection to species that live in all the environments that Asian elephants require. This makes elephants a great candidate to be an umbrella species. If we were to protect the Asian elephant, we would extend an umbrella over parts of Southeast Asia that may otherwise not have any protection from the monsoon season of extinctions.