Tag Archives: behavior

Notes from the field – from Blake

One of the few bright spots in this uncommonly dry February that we find ourselves in, has been being able to observe a certain young elephant by the name of Cathy. Although only ten years old, Cathy has consistently displayed the characteristics of a future matriarch. Every time we come across the CB family, which she belongs to, she immediately catches our attention with her antics. She is exceptionally loquacious and has especially taken an interest in being an allomother to all of the calves in the family.

Any time there is a skirmish amongst the calves, Cathy is sure to be found pacifying both parties until all is calm again. Aside from her innate motherly qualities that she regularly displays, it is her assertiveness that truly defines her. She is the first to greet arriving family members, she already gives “Let’s Go” rumbles to move the family along, and she can often be seen giving “Contact Calls” to get in touch with distant family members. This may not seem too significant, but let me remind you that she’s 10! This family has many older, dominant females and yet this young, precocious female has shown matriarchal attributes that far exceed her years.

Until next time!

Cheers, Blake (Murray)

Members of CB family
Cathy with three calves from the CB family.  She is the largest one, second from the right. (Photo: Blake Murray)

Amboseli elephants dusting
Amboseli elephants dusting (Photo: P. Granli)

Thank you for your contributions!

Thank you Anna M., Matt G., Janet G. Bill F. and Michelle P. – your donations and interest in elephants and our work is very much appreciated! We hope to “see you around” also in 2009, which we think will be an exciting year for ElephantVoices. Be assured that your donations will be used in a good way for elephants. You will find a greeting and a few lines about our plans for 2009 here on WD shortly – we’re packing for Amboseli!
Amboseli elephants

On the way to the US to meet elephant friends AND elephants!

Dear WD Visitor!

For those of you living in the US: Sandip Roy Chowdhury will be talking with Joyce Poole on “New America Now: Dispatches from the New Majority,” which airs Friday Nov 14th at 1:00 p.m. and repeats Sunday at 3:00 p.m. on KALW, 91.7 FM.

You can hear an interview with Joyce on AnimalVoices, an alternative radio in Vancouver, here. The interview with Karl Losken was aired on 31st October.

At 4 am this morning we were awoken by two alarm clocks – not wanting to risk that one would let us down. A couple of hours later we departed for our two week event and fundraising tour in California. We’re looking forward to see friends, elephant supporters and even elephants (at PAWS, where we have a joint event on Saturday 15th Nov.), while at the same time experience the excitement of an historical election. With strong roots in Kenya (and plenty of other good reasons, too) no-one should be surprised that we are happy that Barack Obama will soon be the new President of the United States of America. We are among those convinced that he will strengthen America in a way that will be good for everyone. Barack is Kiswahili for blessing and he is indeed a blessing.

Waiting at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam for our next flight, we watched another BBC news piece describing the impact of increased ivory poaching on the world’s biggest land mammal – and expressing fears that the recent ivory auctions, sanctioned by CITES, will stimulate that growing threat. More and more elephants are succumbing to poaching fueled by the ivory trade and the press needs to bring this to the world’s attention.

Despite difficult times for the financial markets around the world, and for most of us as a consequence, we are hopeful that the people we meet during our California tour will continue to support our elephant conservation work. In the coming year we will be devoting a large portion of our time to our elephant conservation project in Sri Lanka.

We are also very grateful for any contributions towards our work from WildlifeDirect visitors!

Best wishes, Petter and Joyce

Last days with the elephants in Minneriya & Kaudulla

Manori and I had two fantastic last days – one in Kaudulla N.P. and one in Minneriya N.P. In Kaudulla we were fortunate to observe some very interesting defensive behavior during which we were confronted by a wall of elephants. One young female expressed her alarm at our presence by wide-eyed staring and by excited squeaking.

In Minneriya we were treated to an aggregation of 53 elephants. The group split and reformed as elephants went about their business: cooling down in the reservoir, splashing in the water, young males sparring, a musth male testing females, calves suckling and getting lost.

As the crow flies these two national parks are about 8 km apart, but it takes almost forty minutes to drive from one to the other. Along the way Manori and I stopped to pay our respects at the many shrines to Ganesh.

Kaudulla and Minneriya are separated by forest reserve, which includes a couple of small villages, and are surrounded by a mosaic of different habitat types – some protected, some unprotected.

One of the goals of our project will be to understand how the elephant population is using this landscape so that the authorities can better provide for their conservation and at the same time reduce conflict with people. In order to do that we need to know exactly how many elephants there are, and who is moving where, when. We also need to know whether the population is increasing or decreasing. Because the habitat is primarily forest it isn’t possible to get an accurate count. The only way to get solid answers is, therefore, to get to know the elephants individually – which is why we have been so very busy taking ID photographs. Later in the year we will be able to introduce you to some of these elephants via an online identification database.

In the meantime, just looking at the elephants gives a couple of clear indications. If the population is growing it is at a much slower rate than in Amboseli, as there are relatively fewer calves and juveniles to adults. And males over approximately 20 years old are covered in bumps caused by buckshot. They are the big raiders.

It’s been an extremely interesting and busy visit. In addition to getting to know the elephants we had a number of important meetings and discussions with the Wildlife Department and others. I gave two lectures – one to the Wildlife Department staff in Minneriya and the other in Colombo to the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society.

On our last day Manori and I had a meeting with Dilmah Tea, whose Conservation Foundation is supporting our work. I planted a tree on the grounds of their main office in Colombo to commemorate the beginning of our joint endeavor for elephant conservation.

Link to Dilmah Conservation

It’s been a great pleasure to experience the Sri Lankan warmth and enthusiasm – everyone we have met has been very welcoming and helpful. This includes the management and staff at Hotel Sigiriya, who have welcomed us back to our new “home”.

Petter and I are looking forward to what lies ahead with renewed commitment. Working with Manori is a great pleasure and we feel fortunate to have the opportunity to learn from someone with so much experience. Manori moves in an unusual circle of wildlife and elephant enthusiasts and we have slipped into this crowd with ease!

Busy days – WD blog-writing – thank you for your support!

These are extremely busy days, with elephant-related issues following us around the clock, and work priorities are high on the agenda. Collaborating with people in different time-zones adds to the feeling that we live in a small, global society, although it does steal some sleep!
Joyce holding lecture at school near Udawalawe
Sri Lankans love elephants, despite an increasing number of human-elephant conflicts. ElephantVoices’ new project aims to reduce conflicts by creating more ownership towards solutions and consequences related to elephants and their conservation. Education and online access to project data are key words in the project. In the photo Joyce talks about elephants in front of a school-class near Udawalawe National Park.

Education is a core part of ElephantVoices’ goal – and even our blog here on WildlifeDirect is a consequence of that. We want share our knowledge and passion for elephants with you and, concurrently, stimulate interest in supporting elephant conservation and our work.

We have enjoyed participating on WD so far, and are happy to report back that your contributions have helped us to repair our field vehicle in Kenya. It is now ready for our next field trip which will take place between January and March 2009. Contributions through WD have also given us a much needed super-portable Asus Eee 901 computer, which Joyce has been using to write her field diary from Minneriya-Kaudulla – parts of which have been uploaded to this blog. The tiny Asus is a very lap-friendly device with a super-long battery which will serve her well for her 24 hour journey back to Norway… In other words – your support helps us do our job for elephants.

And this is partly how we see our blog efforts – writing the blog IS actually quite a lot of work. We provide you readers with news, experiences and facts from a world that not many have the possibility to be a part of. Those of you who do have the opportunity to support us may feel more connected with work that you believe is important. A win-win situation – for elephants, us, you.
Joyce recording in Udawalawe Transit home in 2003
Joyce “churping” – while recording during ElephantVoices’ visit to Udawalawe Transit Home 2003. Our friend R. Myunideen Mohamed, then Park Warden in Yala East National Park, is following a special kind of interview with curiousity…

We appreciate whatever you do for elephants – and continue to promise that if you support our work with a donation we will do our best to give you value for money. Elephants need and deserve no less.

It will be more quiet from Joyce now, by the way, she is soon at the end of this hectic start-up session of our new Sri Lanka research and conservation project. A couple of lectures and meetings in Colombo remain – and then, once she is back in the office, plenty of preparations related to field-work follow-up, proposal writing, web/database-development and our fund-raising trip to California in November await us. But that’s another story…

We’re happy to know that you are following our work – and we welcome any contributions!

Best wishes, Petter

Joyce’s travel diary Sri Lanka


I arrived in Sri Lanka in the afternoon and Manori was at the airport to meet me. We had an hour long drive through traffic to the other side of town to her parent’s home where I was given a very warm welcome. Afternoon tea is a tradition here, just as in Kenya, and so I immediately felt at home!

That evening we were invited to Lalith and Ayanthie Seneviratne’s home for a dinner gathering with many of the friends Petter and I had made during our visit to Sri Lanka in 2003. A special surprise guest was Mohamed who had accompanied us on the safari we took around the national parks. Mohamed, who has an extraordinary connection with elephants was then warden of Yala East National Park and we learned so much from him.

The evening was very jolly – a guitar appeared and we ate a delicious meal prepared by Ayanthie.
ElephantVoices team visiting Sri Lanka in 2003 - Yala East National Park

ElephantVoices visits Yala East National Park on Sri Lanka’s eastern coast in 2003. We had a fantastic experience there thanks to our friend Lalith Seneviratne (right) and our extraordinary host, R. Myunideen Mohamed then Park Warden. The parks had just been reopened following two decades of civil unrest, but was hard hit by the Tsunami in December 2004. Mohamed’s family were among the many who lost everything but their lives. All the Park’s staff saved themselves, some by running side by side with water buffaloes. The elephants had left for higher ground earlier. The park’s new headquarters was submerged in five feet of water, but a miracle saved them from major damage.


This morning Manori and I got up early and drove to the northern side of Colombo to meet with the Director of Wildlife, Mr. Wijaysooryie. We had a very useful hour long meeting during which we discussed a variety of elephant issues including human elephant conflict, elephant habitat and what to do about elephants being hit by trains. Then we continued on our way north toward Minneriya. The drive was long and the traffic heavy, and I was really feeling jet-lagged. My system is very confused having come from Washington by way of Norway! Stops along the way for fresh passion fruit juice and samosas made me feel I was back in the tropics!

Manori is still looking for a place to set up our base and meanwhile the Hotel Sigiriya has generously given us two beautiful rooms free of charge. So I am writing this having been given a frangipani flower for my hair, a refreshing fruit drink, a cooled and scented face towel, a cup of tea and having done 10 laps in the pool. All this while being entertained by macaques stealing our sugar and langurs knocking over the furniture.

Stay tuned for the next installment…..
Elephants by Minneriya tank

Wherever they are – elephants need our support

TheTeach has inspired me to post a few reflections based on our post Elephant welfare – how much do we care?, and her comments afterwards. What each and one of us have to do is to decide what we believe in – which values we want to stand and fight for – which attitudes we want to show towards other creatures like elephants.  But we in the industrialized world can afford to think like this. In many poor countries millions of people have a different reality in their everyday life – they’re struggling to survive. Human-elephant conflicts and destruction of habitat often symbolizes  that we’re not able to accept certain limitations in terms of resources and land – and that local politicians and the global community not have been able to find the balance between the needs of people and other animals. Bad governance, corruption and lack of land use planning and/or it’s implementation are often strongly contributing factors, but let me not go into that. It’s “unpolitical” to talk about the lack of political drive worldwide to discuss and deal with the human population growth, but from my perspective this topic will have to come higher on the agenda if we want to keep elephants (and other wildlife) for future generations. Poverty reduction is another key, closely connected to population growth. Elephants are certainly also about tourism and revenue, and thereby work places and economical growth, so in principle we would all gain on conserving them.

Photo from Joyce and Petter visit to Thailand February 2006
OK – let me stay out of more politics for now – and go back to some of TheTeach’s comments. Since Thailand introduced anti-logging laws in 1988/89 many elephants have ended up on the streets with their mahouts. I do agree that many mahouts have a close and compassionate relationship with their elephants, but it is also a fact that the methods used to “break” the elephant to get them to do what’s expected in the first place is brutal and unacceptable from an elephant welfare perspective. Some projects are working on getting street-elephants or abused elephants back to semi wild conditions – we visited one of these projects a couple of years ago. One very interesting aspect with this particular project is that they employ and retrain the mahouts as field staff, to secure them a job and also make the transition for the elephants more easy. Another remark: Thailand probably have around 3,000 captive (so called domesticated) elephants today, and less than 2,000 wild, compared to respectively 11,000 and 30,000 fifty years ago. But such figures and percentages are symbolic for the destiny of the elephant also elsewhere.

Hairy Asian elephant
Asian elephant with hair style like me…

We do agree with TheTeach that there should be more efforts going into elephant protection and conservation in Asia, which is one reason why we are in the process of expanding our scope to include both African and Asian elephants. And we will for sure expand our WD blog to include our new project – so TheTeach and others can follow it.
Male flirting with females in Minneriya National Park, Sri Lanka
Male elephant flirting with several females in Minneriya National Park, Sri Lanka.

Keep up your efforts TheTeach and others fighting for elephants – they need our help!

Best wishes, Petter

Elephant welfare – how much do we care?

Every day we receive messages about how captive elephants are being treated, often with disturbing photos or video footage. A mission of ElephantVoices is to promote responsibility for securing a kinder future for elephants. Our aim is to do this is primarily through education – by inspiring wonder in the intelligence, complexity and voices of elephants – rather than jumping on one campaign after another. We are a small team and we are not able to take on individual battles for each and every elephant. But sometimes we feel compelled to make our opinions known and below is an example. It’s a letter to journalist, Robert Wilonsky in The Dallas Observer e-mailed today, as a response to his request for Joyce to comment on video footage (linked below) of elephants in Africam Safari Zoo in Mexico where the Dallas Zoo plans to send their elephant Jenny.[kml_flashembed movie="http://youtube.com/v/il_rCzJrZ0U" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

Dear Robert

The music is hauntingly beautiful and put to the swaying of confined elephants brought tears to my eyes. Why do we humans feel such a need to confine and control other animals? Is our pleasure in seeing them worth the cruelty that we inflict on them? Elephants are intelligent socially complex individuals who have the same basic needs that we have: Freedom and autonomy, companionship and affection, just to name a few.

The first elephant in the video looks very unhealthy; she is too thin; all of the elephants in the video are swaying – a behavior only seen in confined elephants. Like so many captive elephants they are bored and frustrated with nowhere to go and no one to see, no new smells to investigate and nothing to strive for. The result is standing in one place and rocking, slowly losing their minds. Well, wouldn’t we do the same given similar circumstances? I often try to put myself in the elephants’ shoes, so to speak. Ever had to stand for hours and hours alone waiting for that bus that never comes? Feet and back aching? I, too, start to step from one foot to the other. I, too, rock back and forth, I sway. But I don’t wait for a bus for days, for weeks, for months, for years. I have the freedom to choose to go.

We need to wake up to the reality of what we are doing to other creatures and stop hiding behind a lot of constructed arguments for keeping elephants in this way.

Jenny should go to a sanctuary.

Regards, Joyce Poole

Elephants in zoos – or not?

Hi all,

There has been a lot of activity on this blog over the last few days and some of it has centered around elephants in zoos. People who love elephants have strong feelings on this topic, some for and some against zoos. There is a lot of rhetoric on both sides and much of it is not supported by the facts.

We chose our name, ElephantVoices, for two reasons – because we study the voices of elephants and because we aim to be a voice for the interests of elephants. After spending many, many years observing elephants in the wild, I think that we have a better idea than most about what elephants enjoy doing – if they are free to pursue their own activities. In our view, the traditional zoo cannot meet the interests of elephants for reasons that we have laid out in an essay we wrote entitled, Mind and Movement: Meeting the interests of elephants.

The point to remember is that we are not keeping elephants in zoos to meet their individual or collective needs, but our own. When it comes to elephants, it cannot be argued that we are breeding them in captivity as an insurance policy against extinction – since it is much more effective biologically, reproductively and economically to ensure their survival in the wild. And it is certainly better for them as individuals to live wild rather than captive lives.

We keep elephants in zoos to meet our need to see them. It may also be fair to argue that we keep them there to act as ambassadors for elephants in the wild, though based on my experience, websites and TV documentaries offer significantly more real education than do the signs at the elephant enclosures at zoos. Often the elephants we see in zoos are poor, bewildered and broken down creatures with behavior far from what we consider real elephant behavior.

So the question for us really is this: What level of individual elephant sacrifice, if you will, is OK so that we can have the pleasure of their presence in our zoos? My feeling is that we should offer elephants close to what they have in the wild – in terms of physical, mental and social stimulation. The truth is that we are far from this. There is a push to make bigger yards for elephants, but in our view these fall square kilometers (or miles) short of what is OK. The $40-60 million dollars price tag would be better spent on an advanced multi-media theatre with a webcam connected directly to a field study supported by the zoo, where a field worker frequently is on hand to introduce us to individual elephants and explain their complex lives to us. Such an elephant reality show would be true education and entertainment for people and conservation for elephants wrapped into one. The running costs would be minimal compared to what it costs to house one or a few elephants.

We’d like to add that we do not want to belittle the efforts of those trying to make a difference for individual elephants in captivity, whether they are paid or volunteers. But with the interest of elephants at heart we deeply believe that a traditional zoo cannot offer them what they deserve and need.

Trumpets, Joyce and Petter

PS: You may want to visit our FAQ about elephants in captivity on ElephantVoices.

Elephants and social learning

Learning through watching the behavior of others, or social learning, is an important component of the acquisition of behavior in elephants. For instance, young elephants learn what to eat by reaching up and sampling what is in the mouths of their mothers. And young females learn how to successfully raise their calves by watching adult females and through their own experience as allomothers.

I have often wondered how young males make the transition from their female dominated natal families to becoming an independent adult male. The two worlds are so very different. Are the changes necessary just programmed in, or do young males learn how to be a properly functioning adult by watching the behavior of older males?

From watching elephants, I believe that, just like us, it’s a little of both, but having access to role models is very important for the acquisition of normal adult male (or female) behavior. Many of you will have heard of the case where young male orphans from a cull were released into Pilanesberg National Park. Without older male role models they adopted aggressive and anti-social behavior, even making a habit of killing rhinos. Likewise, captive male elephants in zoos and circuses have no possibility of learning from normal adult males. Males are routinely separated from other elephants, so there simply aren’t any socialized males to learn from.

I have often watched the behavior of young males in the company of an older musth male, with a feeling of tenderness in my heart. These newly independent youngsters watch the older males so closely, doing their best to follow everything that the older males do, without drawing too much attention to their presence. For instance, when an older musth male moves through a group of females testing a series of urine spots on the ground, a young male can often be seen standing nearby paying close attention but trying to appear as unimposing as possible (his head low and facing slightly away). Once the older male moves on the younger male follows behind sniffing at all the same places.

elephantvoices_social_learning290.gifIn December we watched a very sweet interaction between two males, which shows just how early a young male can begin to learn social roles in the wild. In the series of photographs taken by Petter, a calf of less than a year watches as a teenage male tests some recently deposited urine. The teenager approaches the urine spot, and stops to sniff carefully, placing his trunk tip over the urine, and blowing warm air out (so as to release volatile substances) and then breathing in. An infant male approaches him, and using his trunk and his eyes he follows closely what the older individual is doing. He reaches toward the tip of the older male’s trunk as he exhales and up toward the older male’s mouth as the male puts a sample of urine in his mouth against his vomeronasal organ for testing (Flehmen). The little male then tests the urine for himself. Having satisfied his curiosity, the infant male wanders back to his mother’s side.

Trumpets, Joyce