How do you study elephants? Elephants are huge, so surely are easy to find, observe and study? Unfortunately, that is far from the truth. An elephant can be as secretive and quiet as a mouse and just disappear into the forest like a ghost... Therefore, we are tracking elephants using new GPS collars.
Asian elephants are forest animals, so unlike African savannah elephants that range in very open habitats, cannot be observed easily. This is one of the main reasons that so little is known about Asian elephants. Even though Asian cultures have had a very close association with elephants for thousands of years, that has been with captive elephants. Because very few scientific studies have been done on Asian elephants, people have assumed that their behavior, ranging patterns, social organization etc. are similar to African savannah elephants, which have been intensively studied for many years. However, we are now finding that Asian elephants are quite different to them. In many respects they are more similar to African forest elephants, which range in similar habitats to Asian elephants and about which too, little is known.
In much of Asia, the forest habitats that elephants range in have very poor visibility. In most of our study areas, visibility within the forest ranges from about 2-10 m, depending on the type of forest and season. To make things even more difficult, most Asian elephants live in areas not far from people, hence come into conflict with them. As a result, they have become very clever at avoiding people, hiding in thick impenetrable thickets during the day and coming out into more open areas only at night. So we use indirect methods such as radio-tracking to study them.
Elephants have a sexually dimorphic social structure, ie. The two sexes have different forms of social organization. Females and young live in groups and have a matrilineal social structure or one that is based on female lines. Males leave the herd when they become adult and then on are mostly solitary. This is an area we have been very interested at studying at CCR.
See our project on social organisation...
Read more about the human elephant conflict.