Friday, July 13, 2012

Elephant interactions

One of the most interesting things about being on this project is watching our elephants interact with one another. It’s a completely unique situation being able to observe a group of captive elephants roaming in the forest, choosing where they stop and forage and which other elephants they interact with. All my previous elephant experience is watching wild herds and how they behave, so coming to Huay Pakoot I wasn’t sure what to expect from a captive herd. 

The relationships with their mahouts are very strong so it is interesting to see the elephants developing strong relationships with each other as well. Unlike a natural wild herd, most of our elephants are not related. We have two mother/offspring pairs (Boon Jan/Song Kran and Ma Na/Pbee Mai) and a matriarchal figure in the grand old lady of the group Thong Dee, with none of the adult elephants related to one another. Yet despite not being related many of their actions resemble those I’ve observed in wild herds. The offspring have a lot of interaction with their mothers, spending much of their time in close proximity and also initiating trunk touches. This type of interaction is typical of how wild elephants show affection, reassurance, and also how they communicate information about their environment and food.

However living in this environment with no threats present and ample food there is a lot less immediate need for the mothers to transfer knowledge, and the mahouts also play a huge role in the learning and development of young elephants. Other similarities to wild herds that I’ve observed are the adults bunching around the young if something startles them, the young elephants interacting more with Thong Dee (who fulfils the matriarchal role) then the other non-mother adult. There are also a lot of play sessions and touching between Song Kran and Pbee Mai – although this is lessening as Pbee Mai grows older and is becoming more independent and mature.

It doesn’t matter how often I see the elephants, it is always special to watch them foraging and interacting with each other in the forest – just being elephants, the way all elephants should be able to live their lives.