Young male elephants in South India, under dire circumstances, are giving brotherhood a shot. Typically known to lead solitary lives once they reach adolescence, a new study finds that these male elephants are remoulding their social lives to form long-term all male groups. This behaviour is believed to be a response to changing habitats and the pressures on them that stem from human development activity.
In 2008, Nishant Srinivasaiah while doing his master’s degree in wildlife biology noticed groups of all male elephants moving across a human habitat near Bannerghatta Park in Bengaluru. “Later in 2013-14, we found some of these same male elephants together in Tumkur, far from Bannerghatta. And I wondered why these male groups were moving long distances into human habitat,” he said. Intrigued, he started observing their behaviour closely.
With a team of wildlife scientists and ecologists, Srinivasaiah, now a doctoral student at National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru, identified areas that encompassed different habitats — continuous forest habitats such as Bannerghata Park, Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary, and agricultural landscapes in Tumkur, Ramanagara, and Krishnagiri.
They set up camera traps and obtained 1,445 photographic records. They identified 248 unique male Asian elephants over a two-year period from February 2016 to December 2017. They then categorised these 248 male elephants according to their age, which correlates with their state of social and sexual maturity.
They labelled them SIM (sexually immature males that are less than 10 years old), adolescent or SM (sexually mature, but socially immature males aged 10 to 20 years), and SSM (both sexually and socially mature, above 20 years of age).
The photographs revealed that the juvenile SIM males, stayed in the mixed-sex herds they were born into, while the older SSM males largely remained solitary, both as expected. The SM males on the other hand were found to be either solitary or in all-male groups, in equal proportion.
These all-male groups were almost always found in areas under intense agricultural production and ranged from 2-12 in number. The team noted that there were some individuals in these groups, who had been together for over ten years.
Such long-term all male groups have been observed in African elephants before, where the males were found to group together both when opportunities for food and mating were aplenty and also when they weren’t but perceived threats from humans. These groups consisted of both younger and older males.
In Asian elephants, this is the first recorded occurrence of all-male groups, but here the elephants are of similar ages. “These groups are mostly in the range of 12-18 years of age. Foraging on the nutrient-rich grains in agricultural landscapes helps these adolescents quickly increase body size, and maintain musth (a period when testosterone levels are high and when they mate) for longer time, giving them a competitive advantage,” Srinivasaiah explained.
The study found that body condition (size) of elephants in the all-male groups was significantly better that the elephants in mixed-sex groups and solitary males, but it also depended on availability of crops.
The scientists believe that the large groups of SM males near agricultural land is a behavioural strategy adapted to ward off threats and survive and reproduce successfully. Mr. Ramesh Belagare, managing trustee of Foundation for Ecology and Education Development, who has been studying elephants in South India for the last 18 years, begs to differ. He said, “A male elephant is actually kicked out of the herd when he reaches adolescence. The young adolescent hasn’t learnt how to survive and is always looking for company.” His view is that when such youngsters encounter other male adolescents, who have been similarly kicked out, they band together to form a sort of boys’ club.
R. Sukumar, professor of Ecology at Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore and one of the advisors to this study believes the young elephants are trying to overcome the disturbances around them. He said, “Thirty-five years ago I have seen male elephants coming together, now the group size is larger.” He added that they are becoming efficient in the use of shrinking spaces — small patches of forest and water tanks to protect themselves from hostile farmers.
Loss of natural habitat due to development and agriculture is pushing elephants to enter human habitats. As a result, human-elephant conflict has been rising in India. It is estimated that nearly 150 elephants succumb every year to electrocution, poisoning, and shooting. Males who leave their herd once they reach adolescence and wander off alone in search of new habitats or resources are especially vulnerable. The formation of male groups is clearly advantageous, but it also comes with high risk. “Such behaviours can be maladaptive, and they can start dying due to conflict,” according to Srinivasaiah.
What does it mean then for conservation of this already endangered species, whose population is in decline due to poaching and conflict? “We have to stop fragmenting forests. The more the habitat changes, the more they will adapt. If young elephants grow up around conflict, they will think it’s the norm, and will push boundaries. But if behaviour is learnt, it can also be unlearnt, if we don’t expose these elephants to conflict,” Srinivasaiah concluded.