SOCIAL STRUCTURE OF ASIAN ELEPHANTS (ELEPHAS MAXIMUS) IN SRI LANKA
Samy, Julie Marie
Wilkinson, Gerald S
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Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) are critically endangered and live in fragmented populations spread across 13 countries. Yet in comparison to the African savannah elephant (Loxodonta africana), relatively little is known about the social structure of wild Asian elephants because the species is mostly found in low visibility habitat. A better understanding of Asian elephant social structure is critical to mitigate human-elephant conflicts that arise due to increasing human encroachments into elephant habitats. In this dissertation, I examined the social structure of Asian elephants at three sites: Yala, Udawalawe, and Minneriya National Parks in Sri Lanka, where the presence of large open areas and high elephant densities are conducive to behavioral observations. First, I found that the size of groups observed at georeferenced locations was affected by forage availability and distance to water, and the effects of these environmental factors on group size depended on site. Second, I discovered that while populations at different sites differed in the prevalence of weak associations among individuals, a core social structure of individuals sharing strong bonds and organized into highly independent clusters was present across sites. Finally, I showed that the core social structure preserved across sites was typically composed of adult females associating with each other and with other age-sex classes. In addition, I showed that females are social at all life stages, whereas males gradually transition from living in a group to a more solitary lifestyle. Taking into consideration these elements of Asian elephant social structure will help conservation biologists develop effective management strategies that account for both human needs and the socio-ecology of the elephants.