Elephants have long been subjects of fascination and intrigue for researchers and enthusiasts alike. While much attention has been devoted to understanding the complex social structures of elephant herds, there exists a lesser-explored facet of their society – the strategists and all-male herds. Contrary to the popular belief that adult male elephants lead solitary lives, recent observations and studies suggest that these magnificent creatures often form close-knit groups. The intricacies of all-male elephant herds, examining the factors that contribute to their formation, such as the departure of males from their natal homes, and the emergence of unusual friendships that involve knowledge-sharing among older bulls could help us better understand elephant behavior and their conservation efforts.
In elephant societies, the departure of males from their natal family marks a significant phase in their lives. Around the age of adolescence, young males leave the company of their mothers, sisters, and aunts. Traditionally, it was believed that adult males then led solitary lives, wandering through vast landscapes in search of mates and sustenance. However, recent studies have challenged this perception by revealing the existence of all-male herds.
Photo by: Renjith Hadlee
One intriguing aspect of all-male elephant herds is their propensity to form in human-dominated landscapes. The proximity of human settlements to traditional elephant habitats may have led to a rise in human-elephant conflicts. Crop raiding, in particular, has been identified as a significant driver behind the formation of these all-male groups. As elephants venture into agricultural fields in search of food, they may encounter hostility from farmers, leading to injuries or even fatalities on both sides. The shared experiences of crop-raiding incidents appear to foster a sense of camaraderie among male elephants, prompting the formation of cohesive groups as a protective measure against external threats.
Crop raiding may not only influence the formation of all-male herds but also has implications for the broader social dynamics within elephant populations. Consequently, these displaced males seek refuge in the company of other males who have undergone similar experiences, forming alliances that transcend traditional family ties.
In all-male elephant herds, the development of unconventional and long -term friendships has been noted. Within these bonds, younger males often forge connections with older, more seasoned bulls. These elder bulls, having endured numerous trials and amassed a wealth of wisdom over their lifetimes, assume the role of mentors to the younger members of the herd. Some individuals have even adapted to living entirely within human-dominated areas. With 75% of elephant home range overlapping with humans, this phenomenon suggests a significant level of knowledge exchange among elephants, underscoring their capacity for social learning and cooperative behavior.
The concept of knowledge sharing among older bulls within all-male herds adds a layer of complexity to our understanding of elephant intelligence and social dynamics. Older bulls, with their accumulated wisdom, guide younger members in navigating the challenges of their environment. Knowledge about navigating across highways, breaching fences, and seeking refuge in small patches of plantations or abandoned land within these plantations are essential survival skills that young elephants acquire from older bulls. This may include sharing insights, also avoiding potential threats, and understanding the human dominated mosaic landscape. The presence of mentors within all-male herds not only enhances the survival skills of individual elephants but also contributes to the overall resilience of the group.
The revelation of all-male elephant herds and their intricate social structures has profound implications for elephant conservation efforts. Moreover, recognizing the importance of knowledge-sharing among older bulls emphasizes the need to protect and preserve the entire spectrum of age groups within elephant populations, ensuring the continuity of vital information passed down through generations.
Male Asian elephants typically exhibit solitary behavior, congregating with herds only during periods of musth and occasionally forming loose all-male groups. However, their societal dynamics are not rigid but instead adapt to environmental pressures, particularly those driven by human activities. This flexibility allows for the expression of alternative strategies when necessary. Notably, the formation of all-male herds has become increasingly prevalent, influenced by the risks and rewards inherent in human-dominated landscapes. In such environments, where the temptation of crop-raiding presents both high risks and high rewards, male elephants have adopted this foraging strategy to enhance their reproductive fitness. The escalating risks associated with crop-raiding have spurred a new behavior observed in males: the formation of stable, long-term herds. This strategy appears to be more environmentally influenced than biologically driven, as evidenced by herd size increasing in resource-rich regions with higher risks. Monitoring such behavioral changes provides valuable insights for mitigating human-elephant conflicts and elucidating pathways for potential coexistence in these challenging landscapes.
Srinivasaiah, N., Kumar, V., Vaidyanathan, S., Sukumar, R., & Sinha, A. (2019). All-male groups in Asian elephants: a novel, adaptive social strategy in increasingly anthropogenic landscapes of southern India. Scientific Reports, 9(1), 8678.
Srinivasaiah, N. M., Anand, V. D., Vaidyanathan, S., & Sinha, A. (2012). Usual populations, unusual individuals: Insights into the behavior and management of Asian elephants in fragmented landscapes.
Srinivasaiah, N., Vaidyanathan, S., Sukumar, R., & Sinha, A. (2022). The Rurban Elephant: Behavioural Ecology of Asian Elephants in Response to Large-Scale Land Use Change in a Human-Dominated Landscape in Peri-Urban Southern India. In New Forms of Urban Agriculture: An Urban Ecology Perspective (pp. 289-310). Singapore: Springer Nature Singapore.