Fred is in Botswana to study elephants with Dr. Mike Chase of Elephants Without Borders. Please read his previous post, Wild Elephants on the Waterfront.
Sometimes, bachelor boy groups get a bad name. But male elephants form bachelor herds that are quite close knit.
Young males generally leave their birth herd and somehow find other males to wander around with. We came across a herd of six boys at a waterhole in the Makgadikgadi Pans National Park. They were not only drinking the water, but also splashing mud all over themselves. Other males slowly came through the bush and joined them.
We were fascinated by how they interacted with each other. Having just spent some time watching large groups of elephant communities at the river, these boys were more social than you might think. They’d use their trunks in an elephant version of “high five.” As one male came close to another, they’d twine their trunks together. They also used their trunks to stick in the mouths of their friends, to stroke the neck and back of their friends, and to generally touch each other. Periodically, they’d also give rumble calls to each other. The classic elephant herd is composed of female relatives and their offspring, while the bachelor bands seem to be unrelated males. Yet “the boys” appear to form close bonds.
Their bonding was even more obvious when it came time to put GPS collars on them. We use the satellite collars to pick up elephant movements, and one of the goals of this trip was to outfit some males in a new area to try to figure out why they were there and where they wandered. The area is fairly desolate, water is sparse, and the elephants have only recently come to the region after decades of absence.
We went up in a helicopter, and the veterinarian darted one of the males to immobilize him so that we could put on the collar. As the drugs took effect, and he lay down, the others in his bachelor band kept close watch. They remained near him, so the helicopter had to hover over the bachelor herd to move his friends away. We landed next to the bull on the ground, placed the GPS collar around his neck, gathered some biological information, gave him a drug to wake him up, and moved back to make sure he recovered quickly.
Within minutes, he flapped his ear, rolled on his back while kicking his feet to gather momentum, and was up in a flash. He lifted his trunk to sniff the air and moved off to go find his friends, who were slowly moving and milling about nearby. We took off in the helicopter for the next one. On this particular trip, we placed four collars on bull elephants in different locations, but all in an area quite close to the Kalahari Desert.
Nobody really knows how bulls form friendships with each other or how they decide where to go when they leave the herd. We also have no idea why they were in an area that hardly had any cows and calves. What were the males doing by themselves in this desolate region of Botswana, and how do they figure out how to navigate their environment? We hope to find out.
Fred Bercovitch is the director of Behavioral Biology at the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research.
To support our elephant conservation work in Africa and learn more, visit the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy.