Asian elephants are forming gangs to survive threats from human-occupied areas

Asian elephants normally live in mixed-sex groups till they reach mating age, after which they move out as lone rangers.

Asian elephants in India are forming ‘gangs’ to protect themselves when they live close to human-dense areas. This odd behaviour, according to researchers, is changing the way elephants interact with one another as they grow up, making them healthier than those that live alone or in smaller groups.

Usually, Asian elephants live in mixed-sex groups until they reach mating age. They eventually leave the herd to live solitary lives and move to areas that are richer in the essentials – food and water. There, they try and establish themselves while also finding a male or female to mate with. This pattern of behaviour is no longer safe, the study says, as these elephants are now evolving to adapt and combat threats to their survival.

A new study by the National Institute of Advanced Studies published in Scientific Reports reports that young male elephants are forming gangs to protect themselves, typically including three to six elephants, that stay and move like a pack. While unusual, these elephants would otherwise behave normally – as they would in their protected, forest habitats.

Asian elephants are forming gangs to survive threats from human-occupied areas

Representational image. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Researchers captured 1,445 pictures of 248 unique elephants in South India, studying them over a period of 23 months. In their view, this seemingly new pack-like behaviour originated in animals that live in areas prone to man-animal conflict.

Human beings now dominate much of the landscape on Earth with farmlands, residential areas, and industry. Thinning forests to make way for said farms is another issue elephants are having to deal with, with movement along "elephant corridors" that connect their different habitats now restricted. Man-animal conflict, a sore that continues to flare up with incidents of violence, is fairly high for India's elephants. 150 elephants lose their lives in human-animal conflict each year. The authors pointed out that 10 of the 248 elephants they studied, were also victim to man-animal conflict over the course of the study.

(Also Read: From conflict to coexistence between humans and elephants: A story from Annamalai)

Elephants in Kaziranga. Photo credit: Varun Goswami

Elephants in Kaziranga. Photo credit: Varun Goswami

Elephant biologist Nishant Srinivasaiah, a PhD scholar and head author of the study said in a Daily Mail report, "These individuals tended to have better body condition compared to solitary adult males.” This, because they live in areas that are near water bodies and food.

Elephants follow a ‘high-risk, high-gain’ method when foraging for food. Farms provide young elephants with a rich supply of nutritious food that is easy to access. When feeding, survival in a group makes it easier for a pack to feed and return to the forest safely, the study suggests.