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Conservation and Society
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Conservation and Society
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Year : 2004  |  Volume : 2  |  Issue : 2  |  Page : 463-468

Book Review 3

Department of Zoology, University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka

Correspondence Address:
Charles Santiapillai
Department of Zoology, University of Peradeniya
Sri Lanka
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Date of Web Publication18-Jul-2009

How to cite this article:
Santiapillai C. Book Review 3. Conservat Soc 2004;2:463-8

How to cite this URL:
Santiapillai C. Book Review 3. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2004 [cited 2023 May 29];2:463-8. Available from: https://www.conservationandsociety.org.in//text.asp?2004/2/2/463/55827

Raman Sukumar, The Living Elephants: Evolutionary Ecology, Behaviour, and Conservation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003, 478 pp., $74.50. ISBN: 0-19-510778-0.

It is to be both welcomed and expected that the advances in elephant research and conservation that have occurred during the recent past would lead to a critical review. Professor Raman Sukumar.s latest book, The Living Elephants: Evolutionary Ecology, Behaviour, and Conservation, perhaps his magnum opus, attempts to bring together the recent advances in the study of both African and Asian elephants. There are few biologists in Asia studying elephants who have the depth of knowledge, or even the courage, to attempt to present such a broad overview of both extinct and extant elephants. This is a welcome and, by any standards, remarkable book that succeeds admirably in its purpose of synthesising the evolution, behaviour, ecology, conservation and management of elephants, while dealing with the history of the interactions between humans and elephants.

Sukumar is perhaps the best expert on the elephant in Asia. He has advanced the cause of the Asian elephant conservation for more than two decades with numerous publications based on rigorous scientific research. His earlier book, The Asian Elephant: Ecology and Management (1989) has become standard reading for anyone working on the species. In writing serious scientific books, the major difficulty lies not so much in what to include as in what to leave out. In his latest book, Sukumar attempts to provide a better balance between studies of Asian and African elephants than offered by other books currently available. Although much of the information discussed in the book has appeared in many journals and books over a long period of time, Sukumar should be credited for having assembled those facts in an interesting, balanced and unbiased way. He has been careful to acknowledge everyone whose works form the basis for the book. It is a bold endeavour. The value of the book lies in the breadth of treatment extending to topics such as the evolutionary history of elephants, interrelationship of culture and ecology, social life of elephant families, reproductive behaviour of elephants, food and feeding habits of elephants, impact of elephants on their habitats, dynamics of elephant populations, conflict between elephants and people, and conservation of elephants.

Elephants are found in Africa and Asia today. The African elephant Loxodonta africana and the Asian elephant Elephas maximus are the living representatives of more than 160 species recognised in the fossil record as belonging to the order Proboscidea. Such a burst in elephant speciation and evolution during the Pleistocene was followed by the extinction of almost all the species. The two causes that are often proposed for such extinction of the Pleistocene megafauna are global changes in climate and overkill by early man or (more likely) a combination of both. Today, while the African elephant is estimated to number about 400,000 inhabiting a total land area of 4.9 million sq. km across thirty-six countries in the continent, the Asian elephant, numbering about 45,000, ranges across a total land area of 486,800 sq. km and is found in just thirteen countries. Thus, the Asian elephant is by far the more seriously endangered, but the African elephant continues to draw much publicity and funds for conservation.

The elephant has always fascinated humans. No other animal has had such a close relationship with people. In Asia the elephant is worshipped as a god (Ganesha) by Hindus, while it is slaughtered for meat or ivory in Africa. The first reference to the elephant occurs in the Rig Veda (c. 1200.1000 B.C.) where it is called mriga hastin, .the beast with the hand.. The elephant must have been domesticated about 4,000 years ago in India, long before the arrival of Indo-Aryan tribes, who were unacquainted with the elephant in the lands from where they came. The Mahabharata provides the earliest evidence for the use of trained elephants in war. Kautiliya's Arthashastra recommended the establishment of sanctuaries for supplying the army with elephants. Sukumar discusses the evolution and spread of elephant culture from north-western India to the south and east, and to South- East Asia. According to C.W. Nicholas, it was the ancestors of the Sinhalese who towards the close of the fifth century B.C. brought with them their inherited skill in the domestication of the elephant to Ceylon. African elephants, too, were trained for use in war. In his campaign against the Romans, Hannibal crossed the Alps with his elephant army in 319 B.C. The interesting question is why the art of capture and taming of elephants collapsed in Africa. The African elephant has always been more valuable dead than alive given the economics of the ivory trade, while the Asian elephant enjoyed protection even in the wild.

Modern studies in molecular genetics appear to put the traditional taxonomy of elephants into some sort of chaos. The results of recent genetic studies by Lori Eggert and co-workers support the recognition of two African species: Loxodonta africana, the savannah elephant, and Loxodonta cyclotis, the forest elephant. In Asia, DNA studies by Prithiviraj Fernando and colleagues reveal that Borneo's elephants are genetically distinct. But the problem in taxonomy is to what extent can the results of comparative studies in microbiology, biochemistry, etc. be used in classifying animals? What conclusions can be drawn from such data as far as evolutionary relationships are concerned? Sukumar cautions that it may be too premature to differentiate Loxodonta into two species. This does not mean that biochemical data are irrelevant; instead, they ought to be placed in proper perspective with a range of other characters.

The elephant is one of the most sexually dimorphic of mammals. This is largely due to differences in growth rate following the period of puberty when the males show a pronounced acceleration of growth.the post-pubertal growth spurt. with the result that adult bulls come to weigh twice as much as full grown cows, and are also much taller. Despite advances in reproductive physiology, the oestrous cycle in elephants is still poorly understood. The studies of Bets Rasmussen and her co-workers indicate that females advertise their oestrous condition by releasing into their urine a chemical compound (z)-7-dodecen-1-yl-acetate, the same volatile compound used by many female insects to attract mates. The book provides a good understanding of the post-pubertal phenomenon of musth. The term musth comes from an Urdu word for intoxication. Musth is a male phenomenon in Asian elephants, while the temporal gland secretes a fluid 'temporin' in both immature and adult male and female African elephants, which play a role in communication among individuals in a social group. As Sukumar rightly points out, .The term musth had been wrongly applied to any kind of secretion from the temporal glands in either males or females. (p. 101). Studies by Joyce Poole and Cynthia Moss in 1981 had firmly established that adult bull African elephants exhibited the physical and behavioural characteristics of musth similar to those in Asian elephants. Musth bulls, as Philip Kahl and Billie Armstrong point out, often strut with the head held high in the musth-walk, which they euphemistically refer to as the 'John Wayne walk'. Young male elephants are also less likely to be in musth if a larger musth bull is around. Larger, older bulls, therefore, may delay the onset of musth in younger males.

One of the most interesting chapters in the book concerns the social organisation of elephants. Long-term observations made by Cynthia Moss led to the discovery that elephants have a multi-tiered social system. Each family, as has been identified by Richard Laws and Iain Douglas-Hamilton, is matriarchal. The age of the matriarch is a significant predictor of the number of calves produced by the family. The core of elephant society is the herd or family unit, and two or more herds go to form a bond group. Ten or more family units will make up a clan, and a number of clans in an area represent the subpopulation. The entire population would include mature bulls as well. It is now known that elephants show an extended period of maternal care, in which mothers invest more on sons than daughters. Male calves are known to demand and get more milk from their mothers. Phyllis Lee and Cynthia Moss found out that in addition to maternal care, other individuals in the herd, referred to as 'allomothers', care for elephant calves. They found that families with multiple allomothers were significantly more successful at rearing calves than families with few or no allomothers. Once males reach sexual maturity, they are expelled from the natal herd to avoid inbreeding. Such young bulls may associate temporarily forming the so-called .bachelor herds. or all male groups. Solitary bulls and all-male groups are often responsible for much of the crop depredations in Asia. Adult bulls are not an integral part of an elephant herd. However, according to Richard Barnes, in regions of low elephant density, it would be advantageous for an adult bull to be attached to a female group for an extended period. This is still debatable, and as Sukumar points out, 'perhaps the last word has not yet been said on this subject'. Of the concept of 'herd bull', after a day's reflection, one might say what Jake Barnes told a wistful Lady Brett in Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, .Isn't it pretty to think so?.

Elephants communicate through a wide repertoire of tactile, visual, chemical and acoustic signals. It was in 1986 that Katharine Payne and her co-workers realised, while observing Asian elephants in captivity, that elephants might be communicating at low sound frequencies (14.24 Hz), inaudible to us. As infrasound can travel at least 4 km through forest, a female could communicate with bulls to advertise her sexual readiness within an area of roughly 50 sq. km. With the use of radio telemetry, we now have a better idea of how far elephants range in the wild. Ajay Desai and N. Baskaran were among the first to provide reliable estimates of home ranges of elephants in India using radio telemetry. Studies on home range patterns have shown the negative correlation that exists between rainfall and range size.

The life of an elephant is one long meal. Elephants are voracious and wasteful feeders, consuming on average 4 per cent of their body weight (6 per cent in the case of lactating females). The choice of browse (C3 plants) or grass (C4 plants) is influenced by the availability of these plant types. They usually switch from browse during the dry season to grass in the rainy season. It appears that a diet of 5 to 6 per cent crude protein is necessary for maintenance of adults.

There has been much debate over the 'elephant problem' in Africa. It was Richard Laws who observed that the concentration of elephants in limited areas could lead to a build-up in their densities, even though absolute population size could be decreasing. While African elephants respond to overcrowding by destroying trees and converting forests to savannahs, Asian elephants usually disperse to prevent overgrazing of their habitat. A contrary view was that elephant utilisation of woody vegetation was merely natural foraging, and that .damage. to trees was part of the natural ecology of semi-arid habitats.

If there were to be a Department of Unfinished Business, human.elephant conflict would be one of its major concerns. Despite a plethora of symposia, conferences, workshops and research studies on human.elephant conflict, general solutions to crop raiding still elude us. A noteworthy feature of the book is the treatment of human.elephant conflict, which has claimed the lives of both humans and elephants. The African elephant's misfortune is its tusks, for which it is slaughtered in large numbers. In parts of India, ivory poaching is also a major conservation problem. But in general, elephant poaching, as Shanthini Dawson and Tim Blackburn argue, may be a relatively minor problem in Asia today, because some males and all females lack tusks. In Sri Lanka, where tuskers are rare (only less than 7 per cent of the bulls are tuskers), ivory poaching is not a serious problem. Instead, human.elephant conflict is responsible for an annual loss of between 100 and 150 elephants, and 30 and 50 humans. In many countries in Asia, unlike in Africa, there is no longer enough room for elephants to move about and adjust their densities to changes in the vegetation. When landscapes are fragmented, a system of corridors may be one way of ensuring genetic exchange between isolated populations or pocketed herds. A number of measures have been used to mitigate elephant depredations, and these range from the use of firecrackers, construction of trenches, establishment of electric fences, to the use of capsicumbased irritants developed by Ferrel Osborn in Zimbabwe. Other options have been the removal of .problem animals. either through translocations or elephant drives. In Africa problem elephants are removed through culling.

Both African and Asian elephants are listed in Appendix I of CITES, which bans their international trade. But as Sukumar points out, a mere ban in trade is no guarantee that elephants will survive. The ban may drive the ivory trade underground, making it as hard to police as cocaine smuggling from the forests of Latin America. Ivory trade is a sensitive issue with arguments for and against. While accepting the fact that the 1989 international ban did help reduce the level of ivory poaching in Africa, Sukumar argues that a more pragmatic, longer-term strategy for the trade in ivory needs to be worked out. It is important that countries in which elephants range make the existing machinery of conservation work better, instead of rushing headlong into a total ban that could make matters worse. Ivory trade is a very contentious issue.

With the proliferation of research on elephants during the past four decades, the need for an authoritative overview has been keenly felt. Sukumar.s latest book is an attempt to fill this gap. He writes with conviction backed by long-term observations and research on elephants. He has made a bold and successful attempt to get almost all really important facts about elephants, and has included both old and new information. It is, however, not a book to be skimmed at a sitting, but one to be read in parts, to be digested and to be consulted time and again in the future. The comprehensive twenty-five-page bibliography with almost 500 references will be of real value to both students and researchers wishing to go further. The book is well produced with the high quality of illustrations and graphs that we have come to expect from Oxford University Press. The most pleasant surprise of the book is its readability. Because of its coverage and lucidity, the book is bound to interest a wider audience. It represents a landmark in providing an overall picture of the state of knowledge on elephants, and so will be valuable as a catalyst for research on elephants. The author.s scholarship in these matters being of a high order, his book will be of immense value to a broad spectrum of people as a means of catching up with important and startling developments in the field of elephant conservation.[1]

   References Top

1.Sukumar, Raman (2003), The Asian Elephant: Ecology and Management. New York: Cambridge University Press.  Back to cited text no. 1      


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