Friday, March 2, 2012

Elephant Rampages Blamed On Old Bulls, Bad Role Models For Juveniles

Science Magazine
Feb. 24, 2012

Elephants may give birth to live young, but they can still be bad eggs. A new study shows how seemingly good elephants turn rotten, at least from a human viewpoint, by stealing into farms and wolfing down crops. In Kenya, young males seem to be learning their problem behavior from older bulls, an insight that may influence how conservationists manage clashes between humans and the large animals.

It's a frequent occurrence along the farms surrounding Amboseli National Park, just north of Mount Kilimanjaro in Kenya: Locals wake up to find that their carefully sown tomatoes and onions have been pulled up and their fields mangled—with a few tracks and some scat identifying elephants as the perpetrators. Scientists know that such "crop raiding" is almost exclusively a male endeavor. But why these elephants do it isn't clear.

Most elephants, in fact, never go on raids, says study co-author Patrick Chiyo, a behavioral ecologist at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. He and his colleagues previously estimated that only about 35% of the adult males living in Amboseli regularly gorged on cultivated fruits and vegetables. To get to the bottom of this behavior, Chiyo turned detective.

When an elephant went on an eating binge near the grassy preserve, farmers would contact Chiyo. He'd show up, then follow the tracks back to where the bulls were recouping after their raid. Because all of the roughly 1400 elephants living in the preserve are known by unique marks—such as notches in their ears or missing tusks—Chiyo could tell who was who.

Raiding isn't a young elephant's game, Chiyo's team discovered. Some 20- and 30-year-old elephants did sneak over fences, but bulls over 45 were twice as likely to do so, he and colleagues report online this month in PLoS ONE. Chiyo says this may have to do with musth, prolonged periods of heightened testosterone and aggression levels, which in most male elephants begins when they reach their full reproductive potential around 45 or 50. Males entering musth don't just go looking for mates; they rampage. This hyperactivity may sap the bulls' energy, forcing them to turn to potentially dangerous options, such as crossing into farms, to find food.

But that wouldn't explain why some younger males were also raiding crops. With a little digging, the group found that they were following role models. Youngsters that ran mostly in packs with older bulls were also more likely to raid; in other words, they were learning their habits from patriarchs. That wouldn't be unprecedented in the elephant world. Older female elephants, for instance, often instruct young cows on where to find watering holes.

Wildlife managers might try to break this cycle, Chiyo says. He recommends that conservationists focus much of their energy on chasing away older bulls that wander too close to farmland. Elephants soured on the raiding process might be less likely to teach their tricks to younger animals. "If these older males learn that cultivated crops are always protected," he says, "they may influence their younger associates not to raid as well."

Simon Hedges, a conservation biologist at the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York City, says he's happy to see researchers nailing that older elephants, likely driven by musth, are mostly responsible for crop raiding. Many researchers had long suspected as much but couldn't prove it definitively.

The study "is pioneering in delving into the behavior of crop raiders," adds Lisa Naughton, a geographer at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who focuses on interactions between human societies and animals. But, she adds, "tweaking behavior" might not be enough to manage problem elephants. Instead, conservationists should strive to limit the temptation of agriculture. That could include fencing off farms or encouraging locals to grow cash crops that aren't as delicious for elephants as a tomato dinner, such as chilies.

'I have said it for years and years. If you want to really learn and understand what makes a "tough elephant" look deep at who trained it, who was around it in it's early day's, and how fast/quickly it was trained. A terrible injustice to any young animal is to be trained fast/quick with no consideration to individual "learning curves." In the circus, if you "trained fast" you got the most employment, cost being a major consideration greater then the future affect on the animal. There is no skill in "fast training" only a "certain mentality." I as a trainer, will not be put on a time limit. It is totally up to the individual animals, and how many different personalities I am working with depends upon how long it will take to complete an act. I will not go fast, or be put on a "time limit" nor will I indicate a time limit. I will not subject an animal to future problems because it was not given the time to adapt to it's individual "learning curve.'


Anonymous said...

In other words, an elephant is influenced by it's early experiences. So, why can it not be said that animals that came from culls or harsh capture methods and handling before they were imported and have had bad early experiences with humans wouldn't be more likely to be aggressive as they age? Also, look at the animals that have pretty much been with one trainer/act most of their lives versus show owned animals that are sold numerous times and have had every Tom, Dick and Harry have a go at them.
I've read plenty of comments over time on the other blog talking about 'bad' elephants, as though they just became bad all by themselves. The attitude seems to be that handling and method have nothing to do with outcome, and they all end up the same in the end regardless of what you do to them.
Regardless of how much study has been done on the disposition of all animals and how early handling affects them, there are still those dinasours who think once an animal finds itself in the circus, they become different entities and natural psychology no longer applies.
I suspect those are the same people who grew up in an era where the answer to every problem with their children was to "beat them til they can't sit for a week'. And, I'm not talking about general discipline. Just as that attitude is no longer tolerated with children, neither is it with animals. The images of trussed up elephants on Buckles Blog along with casual mentions of executions, throwing them overboard, etc are never accompanied by any dissaproval, and to the casual reader almost seem to be condoned. Even a statement such as "this is the way things were done before people knew what the hell they were doing" would be enough.
Within 10 years 99% of all the old timers will be gone or retired, and then what? The pictures of Ringlings baby elephant training makes it appear that they give a lot of thought to improving the early training methods, so it will be interesting to see - down the line- how those animals mature.

Anonymous said...

From reading, it is evident that your experience with training elephants is limited and your knowledge of their history as well. The people you slate have more experience than you could gain in the current world.Get a grip, if you wanted to learn, you would be wise to do some more research.Would love to see your version of calf training when there is resistance?. Keep reading and you may eventually learn something, then again some cannot be taught.Sorry for the rant Wade.

Wade G. Burck said...

Brilliant, no apology necessary. We are all here to state our opinions and be proud enough and confident of the facts of said opinions to sign our names. Most anonymous "this opinionated" find their way to the cyber toilet 5 or 6 times a day. I let this one in because it was that cockeyed. It is important to keep reminding normal folk of the dangers out there. I am waiting until tomorrow to respond, as I wanted others to respond first. So no Glenn, don't apologize. Let's see if anonymous who hates what goes on, but can't seem to stay away from the blogs has an answer to your questions. Maybe he/she isn't one of those animal rights experts who doesn't have answer's, only misinformed statements. We will wait for the answers, and no, "you shouldn't train the calf in the first place, then you wouldn't have resistance isn't an acceptable response." :)