Posts Tagged ‘African Elephant’

African Elephant Romance (or in scientific terms “Reproductive Strategy”)

by | February 16th, 2016

Colleen Kinzley, Founding Member Tembo Preserve & Director of Animal Care, Conservation and Research Oakland Zoo

Territorial and courtship displays occur in a wide array of species. In some species, individual males have been observed to selectively favor particular behaviors and/or vocalizations, making them unique to that individual male. Male chimpanzees, for example, are known to have particular components of aggressive or territorial displays that they favor and perform more often or even to the exclusion of other display behaviors. Some have even been documented creating their own display behaviors or incorporating some unique part of their surroundings. Many song bird males create unique variations on their songs differentiating them from neighbors of the same species.

African elephants live in matriarchal societies where young males leave their family group in their early to mid-teens. During their late teens and twenties, they spend their social time in loosely formed bachelor groups. Elephants continue growing throughout their lives; males in their teens and twenties are considerably smaller than bulls in their thirties and above, so these younger males typically have little opportunity to breed. Males over 25 years of age engage in periods of sexual activity and sexual inactivity. Periods of sexual activity are simply defined as time spent with females groups. During these periods, males may or may not be found in the company of other males but are consistently seen with female family groups.

African elephants spend much of their time on the move, sometimes walking many kilometers between resources such as food, water, and shade over the course of a day or two. They are also a migratory species, sometimes moving hundreds of kilometers seasonally to take advantage of rain or other resources. For sexually active males, estrous females represent a scarce and mobile resource. Musth is a unique strategy developed by male elephants to increase their reproductive success.

S. Elliott Samburu National Reserve

S. Elliott Samburu National Reserve

Musth and Male Elephants

A bull is considered to be in a state of sexual inactivity when he is not keeping company with females.  In this case, he may be solitary or in the company of other bulls. Alternatively, sexually active males may or may not be in a state of musth. During musth, some individual bulls display unique behavior or behavior patterns just as males of other species are found to exhibit unique behavioral displays.

 

Characteristics of Musth

Musth is a physiological and behavioral state resulting from highly elevated testosterone levels compared to non-musth sexually inactive bulls. Musth has two outward defining characteristics: urine dribbling and the secretion of glands located in the temporal region of the head. The rate of urine dribbling, characterized by constant seepage from the retracted penis, can be variable but any amount of urine dribbling indicates that a bull is in a state of musth . From a distance, bulls in heavy musth can most easily be identified by the shiny, dark appearance to the inside of their legs, caused by the constant urine spray on their legs,

The constant seepage of urine can result in a whitish to greenish film around the opening of the penis sheath. This urine build up on the legs and sheath results in a distinct pungent odor. Musth temporal gland secretions are thick, sticky, dark in color, and have a strong odor. A bull in heavy musth may have a wide, wet, stain running from the temporal gland down to the lower jaw. Older bulls may develop very swollen temporal glands filling in the normal indentation of the skull above the temporal gland and behind the eye. These swellings increase the size of the forehead making the bull look even larger.

Elephants mating in Amboseli National Park

Elephants mating in Amboseli National Park

Who Exhibits Musth?

The period of time in which males spend in musth lengthens as he ages and continues to grow in size age. Males may begin to show signs of musth in their mid-teens, but in these early years it may last only hours or days and the presence of a dominant male will likely inhibit musth in these younger bulls. The median age for the onset of musth is 29 years old. As males age they typically experience a longer musth period ranging from a median of 2 days for bulls 16-25years to 81 days for males 46-50 years old then declining to 54 days for males 51-60 years old. The consistency of musth periods also increases with age; for young males, their musth period is erratic, and opportunistic. They may be stimulated into musth by the presence of an estrous female then driven out of musth by the arrival of a musth male or other dominant males. As males mature, and depending on their ranking in the population, they will eventually establish a relatively predictable period of musth each year. The most dominant males in the population get the most optimal musth periods, typically during and immediately after the rainy seasons when the largest number of females come into estrous.

An older musth bull will out compete not only non-musth bulls but also younger musth bulls. In most observed matings, the bulls were over the age of 35 years and in musth. Recent genetic paternity analysis of a well –studied population confirms these observations with 74% (88/119) of the calves sired by musth bulls.

Musth is an energetically expensive condition and even the most dominant males in a population typically can only maintain musth for a few months. Musth bulls spend less time feeding, more time on the move, and more time chasing, or fighting with other males resulting in a loss of condition.

 

Female Elephants Choose Mates

Females demonstrate choice through their participation or lack thereof with a potential mate. Courtship begins with urine and genital testing; an attractive female is first followed then chased by a male suitor. Smaller and faster than most males, the female is able to out run the male if she does not chose to stand for breeding.

For females, it is advantageous to consort with musth males and they demonstrate a preference for musth males. For example, during the period of consortship with a musth male, the female is not harassed by multiple, often young, males who are also perusing her. In addition, a musth bull represents a fit male, as only older, healthy males come into musth. The increased levels of testosterone that are characteristic of the musth condition also increase the bull’s fertility by increasing his sperm count, increasing the probability of successful fertilization of the females eggs.

So for both males and females the phenomenon of musth represents an effective reproductive strategy… even if it is not suitable materials for a Hallmark Valentine’s card!

 

Have You Met our Beautiful African Elephants?

by | September 27th, 2013

zena-the-zookeeperDSC00426 [800x600]Did you know that Oakland Zoo is the only zoo in Northern California with African Elephants?  We have FOUR amazing African Elephants, three females and one male, and although they look similar, to us animal keepers their personalities are about as different as up and down.  As sweet and sour.  As football and bowling. As … well, you get the picture.

All of the girls come from Africa originally, but sadly, they became orphans and were sold to Zoos in the United States when their families were culled. Culling is the very controversial method of population management. They had sad and difficult beginnings in life, but now they all make one big happy family! We zookeepers do our very best to make sure of that each and every day – we love our elephants very much! All four have such unique and fun personalities, so what’s not to love?!

Osh, our only boy, is 19 and has been with us since 2004. He came from Howletts Wild Animal Park, where he was born with his family group. Young males in the wild get kicked out of their herd from ages 8-12, and that is what Osh’s mom and aunts started to do to him, so we gave him a home here at Oakland Zoo. Osh is extremely active, exploratory, and curious. He’s got a very lively and chipper walk, and he loves to play, browse and graze.

Donna is 34 years old and came to Oakland Zoo in 1989. She very quickly became the dominant female because she had the biggest attitude. She is the most playful out of the girls.  At nighttime you will find her having fun playing with the large tractor tires in her enclosure and charging into the pool for a cool-down! Personality-wise Donna is impatient, loves to participate in training, and is closely bonded with Lisa, whom she sleeps with every night. See how and why we train our elephants here!

Lisa is 36 years old and has been with us since she was two years old. She came from Kruger National Park in South Africa and went briefly to a “training” facility for several months then came to the zoo. Lisa is an ‘elephant’s elephant,’ she likes all of her pachyderm friends, and wants to make everyone happy. She loves her pool. We call her our water baby, because she will take daily dips if the weather is right! Want to see Lisa taking a bath? She is sneaky, agile, and can be very stubborn!

M’Dunda is 44 years old and came to us in 1991. She has a bad history of abuse at her previous facility; which is amazing because she is an extremely gentle soul and wouldn’t hurt a fly. She loves to play with Osh, and is often spotted at night leaning over the fence into Osh’s area, trunk-twirling with him. She can be a little insecure, and scared of new situations. When she first came here she wouldn’t eat her treat boxes! She sure does now, though! She also has long beautiful tusks.

All four of these wonderful beasts just love pumpkins, melons and pineapples. Come to our next “Feast For the Beast” event in the Spring and you can bring some produce and place them around the elephant habitat yourself!

Until next time, see you at the Zoo!

Growing Up Oshy

by | October 31st, 2012

The time we’ve all been anticipating for years has finally arrived; Osh has now experienced his first musth. Bull elephants, both African and Asian, go through a period of heightened sexual and aggressive activity, or musth. Similar to that of a rut in hoofstock species, this is a period when bull elephants more actively compete for, seek out, and guard estrous females. Musth was first described in African Elephants in 1976 by elephant expert Joyce Poole and is characterized physically by stinky temporal

Osh, 18 years old, 10’3″ tall, 11,300 lbs.

drainage and swollen temporal glands, urine dribbling from the sheath, along with several specific distinct displays of behavior as well as heightened aggression toward other bulls. When a young bull goes into his first musth it generally only lasts for a few days or weeks as they come in and out of it. Bulls typically go into their first musth from the years of 18-25. At 18 years, standing at 10 feet 3 inches tall, and weighing in at 11,300 lbs, Osh seems to be experiencing similar patterns to that of the wild. Although catching the eye of the females will be much easier for him, since he won’t have any competition.  Older males with more experience can go into musth for up to several months, with the most successful breeding males in their forties. Females prefer musth males to non-musth males, although those not in musth may also breed successfully. About a week prior to being official we noticed an increased amount of temporal drainage from Osh’s temporal glands. We continued to observe heavy temporal drainage with a specific musky odor, which was followed by a wet sheath and a small amount of urine dribbling. Throughout the next two weeks we continued to observe these physical changes, sometimes the urine dribbling heavier, completely wetting down the insides of Osh’s legs. These are physical changes you can look for if you see him on exhibit. As of yet, we have not noted any dramatic behavioral changes which may change as time goes on. This is a very interesting time for the elephants as well as the keepers as we witness Osh go through a new chapter in his life.

Of Tusks and Terror: The Truth about Ivory

by | March 14th, 2012

The cross section of a tusk. If you look closely, you can see the diamond shaped pattern, also known as the Lines of Retzius, one reason why ivory is so desired.

What you might think you know about the ivory trade on African Elephants may be information of the past if you haven’t done your current research. Did you know that there are currently 40,000 African Elephants killed every year for their tusks? These incredibly high numbers are estimating that in fifteen years, African Elephants could be close to, if not extinct. Did you know that in the past decade the price of ivory has been driven from a measly twenty dollars to over fifteen hundred dollars per kilogram? The bau fa hu, or “suddenly wealthy” rapidly growing middle class in China has driven this price to skyrocket. Did you know that after China, the USA is the second biggest importer of illicit ivory in the world? Shame, shame. And for what? Greed? Wealth? Vanity?

In the late seventies an estimated 1.3 million African Elephants existed. Ten years later less than half remained, an average of 600,000. The cause? Poaching, second to habitat loss due to a doubling in human population.  Major public awareness campaigns were commenced worldwide to try and halt this vicious trade. The Amboeseli Elephant Research Project were critical players in the development of these campaigns and

African Elephant Distribution Map. Numbers are thought to be less than 400,000 total.

making people aware of and care about elephants. Proudly, in October 1989 at the seventh CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) Convention of the Parties, governments banned the international trade of ivory. Other countries to the Convention, such as the United States, United Kingdom, and France also began to ban any import as well. In that same year, Kenya made a bold statement by burning a stockpile of twelve tons of ivory, bringing together a large community of people with a shared interest of the survival of the species. What happened next? Exactly what was hoped for, the demand went down and ivory lost its value from 300 dollars per kilo to three dollars a kilo. Elephants could now live in peace, populations began to regenerate. Kenya, who had lost ninety percent of its elephants, from 167,000 down to 16,000, now thrives at 37,000. Although the ban was mostly successful, small amounts of poaching continued mainly in West and Central Africa, where local markets existed as well as small amounts of exports to the Far East.

As populations began to thrive again, what happened next? At the next CITES Convention in 1997, Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe began to down list their elephants to a less endangered status. This meant less protection for the elephants. A year later, 190 tusks and additional pieces weighing a total of 1.45 tons was seized by Taiwanese port police. The same three countries listed above were given permission to sell stockpile ivory to CITES-designated buyers, 50 tons were exported to Japan. Other countries wanted to follow suit, as did South Africa in 2000. In June, 2002 6.5 tons of ivory was seized by Singapore authorities, the largest shipment of illegal ivory since the 1989 ban. Regardless of the increased illegal activity and confiscations, at the 2002 CITES meeting Botswana, Namibia, and

Ivory signature carvings, known as "chops" in China, and hanko to the Japanese. A sign of wealth.

South Africa was given permission to export 60 tons of ivory. This sale occurred in 2008, and over 108 tons went to Japan and China. Now we’re starting to see a pattern forming, aren’t we?  Giving these countries permission to sell the stock-piled ivory, in hopes of boosting the economy, only boosted Japan and China’s appetite for the ivory, increasing its value, therefore increasing the illegal activity as well. The more valuable the ivory becomes, the more elephants are being slaughtered.

So what is happening today? Do you want the bad news or the even worse news? An estimated 470,000 elephants remain today, which has gone down from an estimated 600,000 in 1989. According to scientist Sam Wasser, an estimated 38,000 are being killed every year for their tusks. Dr. Wasser is a ivory DNA specialist, in where he discovered how to find where seizures of ivory originated from according to the DNA of the ivory. This is an extremely valuable tool in pinpointing where illegal activity is occurring so governments can be questioned and more policing can occur. Between 2007 and 2009 over 2,000 confiscations have occurred, a large increase from years past. The demand in China has escalated since the stockpile sales, with ivory carving factories and sales on the rise. If only a small percentage of the 1.3 billion people of China purchase ivory, elephants are in big trouble. Ivory now sells for 1500 dollars a kilo in the Far East. Although on the ground in Kenya, its value is much lower, a small pair of tusks could bring a poacher as much as 400 dollars, more than a casual worker makes in a year.

The incentive is paramount.

Kenya takes another stand against the illegal ivory trade, another burning took place in 2011.

With more breaking news, there has been a massacre of over 400 elephants in Cameroon’s Bouba N’Djida National Park, over a period of just eight weeks. Illegal activity has been known to occur in this area, but not to this degree so quickly. Poachers are believed to have entered the park from the Chad border and were heavily armed, selling the ivory for money, guns, and ammunition. The total population of Cameroon’s elephants is believed to be as little as 1,000 individuals. In the past week over one hundred Cameroonian soldiers have been sent in to secure the park.

What can we do to stop these amazing creatures from vanishing? One easy way to help is to get the word out there. In such a technologically savvy world today, telling everyone you know about what you’ve learned about the current status of African Elephants is easy. Blog about it, facebook it, tweet it. Spread the word, and help make everyone aware!

Please join the Oakland Zoo in May for our annual Celebrating Elephants Day, where we increase public awareness about elephant welfare, and raise money for the Amboeseli Trust for Elephants.