Marriage for Two Days

Miroslav Bobek et  al.
Interview with Andrea Turkalo. Part II

Unequal I with Unequal VI. Author: Miroslav Bobek
Dzanga Bai appears to be from a different time and world. Against the backdrop of the forest, you can see dozens of elephants: females, their offspring of various age, as well as a long-tusked males here and there. Together with them scores of forest buffaloes and antelopes… This remote place in Central African Republic is where American zoologist Andrea Turkalo has been conducting her research for nearly twenty years.

When we talk about African elephants, many people will think about savannah from Kenya or Tanzania. But these forest elephants are a different species.
Forest elephants are much smaller than savannah elephants. Males are about 2.4 metres at the shoulder and females about 2 metres. Savannah elephants could be a third taller than that. The first time you see these elephants if you have seen savannah elephants, the first thing that impresses you is the size – they are much smaller. Their ears are a little bit more rounded and their tusks tend to be finer, thinner. Also the quality of the ivory is different. The ivory here is much harder. Artisans like to carve it because they can carve much nicer things. So, there is a lot of pressure on these elephants for their ivory. They are being poached at an incredible rate. When you go to this clearing, you think there are a lot of elephants around, but these elephants are under a lot of hunting pressure.

How do forest elephants organise themselves socially?
All elephants are very social especially the females. The way they organise themselves socially are groups of adult females and their offspring. An adult female can be with her daughter and they have all the offspring together. This is because the family groups educate the younger elephants. Elephants, like people, have to learn how to be elephants. In human society, children have to have good parents to become good human beings and it is the same with elephants. They need lo learn how to be elephants. The matriarch, the head of the group, teaches the group where to find good food, where it is safe. It is a matriarchal society, which means the society is centred around adult females that live with their immediate relatives.

Nothern part of the clearing. Author: Miroslav Bobek

How big are the groups typically?
I have groups that I have been able to figure out in this population that can number up to 25. But that’s because I was able to see them for a long time. But if you go to the clearing, a group that you will see will be three elephants together – you will see mother and maybe her juvenile offspring and then her infant. That’s what you see. But in reality, they talk to each other in the forest, they recognise each other’s voices, they meet up and then they disperse because it is very safe for them in the forest. There are no natural predators for them except man.

How long do sons stay with their mothers?
Males leave their group when they are six or seven years old. Males do not like to be with their group, They want to go off and have adventures.

We see mostly females and young in the clearing. Do males frequent it?
Males go there as well, but it has been just a little bit wet, so we do not see many males now. They like the clearing when it is dry and they can get to the minerals right away. Younger males will play with each other because they learn how to be males, so they will joust. But generally, the big males just stay by themselves. They don’t even like to think about another male being near them. They have a whole system of hierarchy where they test their strength against other males in the population. It is not real fighting, it is just pushing. It is rare that we see real fight between two large males. They usually fight maybe for a few seconds and until one decides that he is weaker and he leaves. But on the rare occasion that they really fight, males can kill each other.

Medina II and a newborn. Author: Miroslav Bobek

How long do elephants live?
Savannah elephants live to be about sixty years old. Females mature at about fourteen. The thing that limits their life is their teeth. They have six molars on each side up and down and the teeth erupt from the rear. When they get the sixth molar, it will eventually wear out. Yesterday, there was a female in the clearing, she is going to die soon. She is very old, I have known her for about twenty years. She is getting very thin because she is unable to chew her food because her teeth are all worn out.

What happens at the end of their life? Do they leave the group or does the group push them out?
It depends. I see many older females alone. Maybe they lose interest in being with the group or maybe they don’t keep up with the group or maybe they are mentally not healthy. Sort of like old people. That’s what makes elephants really interesting – their lives parallel our lives in so many ways.

Do males come to see females only to mate?
Yes. It is called the must season. You can recognise male elephant. They start secreting from a gland between the eye and the ear, they urinate all over their legs and they smell a certain way. If a male finds a female that is in oestrus, the male will stay with her for about two days. He will mate with her a couple of times and leave her to look for other females because females are only receptive for a couple of days every four to six years. So, males do not have a lot of opportunity to mate with females.

Thekla I, Thekla II and Tibie. Author: Miroslav Bobek

What kind of interaction is there between elephants and other animals?
There is some but elephants hate everybody. They don not like other animals. You can see little elephants chasing bongo and sitatunga. Once I saw a male elephant here kill a buffalo because the buffalo wouldn’t move. We found out the buffalo was probably going to have a baby, that’s why she didn’t move. Usually, animals move out of their way because elephants could kill them. Elephants are not very tolerant animals at all.

In our book and on our CD, we have a fairy tale called “The Frightened Elephant”. Is it true that elephants get easily frightened?
Yes. For instance, if a tree falls, they will run away. Sometimes even if fruit – a pod – splits and makes a noise, they will run.

On the one hand, they will run when something strange happens, on the other hand, they will kill anyone who does not want to get out of their way?

The thing is they can recognise other animals but when they hear something that’s strange to them they are very cautious and they will run off. But some elephants know things. There is one elephant in this clearing who will stay if other elephants run away because of a noise. And she will go to the best mineral hole. It is always the same individual, Maureen

Adult female with two offspring. Author: Miroslav Bobek

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