The Living Elephants: Evolutionary Ecology, Behavior, and Conservation

The Living Elephants: Evolutionary Ecology, Behavior, and Conservation

The Living Elephants: Evolutionary Ecology, Behavior, and Conservation

The Living Elephants: Evolutionary Ecology, Behavior, and Conservation

Synopsis

The Living Elephants is the authoritative resource for information on both Asian and African elephants. From the ancient origins of the proboscideans to the present-day crisis of the living elephants, this volume synthesizes the behavior, ecology and conservation of elephants, while covering also the history of human interactions with elephants, all within the theoretical framework of evolutionary biology. The book begins with a survey of the 60-million year evolutionary history of the proboscideans emphasizing the role of climate and vegetation change in giving rise to a bewildering array of species, but also discussing the possible role of humans in the late Pleistocene extinction of mastodonts and mammoths. The latest information on the molecular genetics of African and Asian elephants and its taxonomic implications are then presented. The rise of the elephant culture in Asia, and its early demise in Africa are traced along with an original interpretation of this unique animal-human relationship. The book then moves on to the social life of elephants as it relates to reproductive strategies of males and females, development of behavior in young, communication, ranging patterns, and societal organization. The foraging strategies of elephants, their impact on the vegetation and landscape are then discussed. The dynamics of elephant populations in relation to hunting for ivory and their population viability are described with the aid of mathematical models. A detailed account of elephant-human interactions includes a treatment of crop depredation by elephants in relation to their natural ecology, manslaughter by elephants, habitat manipulation by humans, and a history of the ivory trade and poaching in the two continents. The ecological information is brought together in the final chapter to formulate a set of pragmatic recommendations for the long-term conservation of elephants. The broadest treatment of the subject yet undertaken, by one of the leading workers in the field, Raman Sukumar, the book promises to bring the understanding of elephants to a new level. It should be of interest not only to biologists but also a broader audience including field ecologists, wildlife administrators, historians, conservationists and all those interested in elephants and their future.

Excerpt

In an article entitled “How many species are there on earth?” in the September 16, 1988, issue of the journal Science, the eminent and influential scientist Robert May (now Lord May) observed, almost with a tinge of regret, that the Order Proboscidea topped the list of the number of articles per species of various animal groups that were published annually during 1978–1987. The message of his article was that the study of the vast diversity of smaller-size organisms was being neglected in favor of the larger vertebrates. The recent genetic evidence for two species of African elephants, and the claims of a possible third or even fourth species of African elephant, would alter the articlesto-species ratio, but the Proboscidea would still maintain its top slot. Actually, I think that the defection of the few biologists who study creatures such as elephants and tigers to disciplines such as the classification of beetles would make little difference to our knowledge of beetles but considerably erode our understanding of elephants and tigers, creatures that could act as flagships in conserving beetles and the diversity of our tropical forests.

During the past 20-odd years, my own work as well as that of my research group has actually extended beyond elephants to communities of small and large mammals, rain forest birds, parasites, tropical plants, and even paleoclimate. Yet, in some strange fashion the elephant has been the thread connecting many of these diverse themes—for example, the interaction between elephants and tropical plants, parasite loads in relation to mate choice, and the use of stable carbon isotopes in studying the elephant's feeding habits as well as in reconstructing past climate change. This echoes Wendy O'Flaherty's observations of the elephant-headed god: “One can start from Ganesa and work from there in an unbroken line to almost any aspect of Indian culture. ”

Some years ago I realized that, in spite of the considerable numbers of articles and books on elephants, there was hardly any volume that provided a broad synthesis of their biology within the framework of modern evolutionary theory. Most of the books either pertained to individual studies of African or Asian elephant populations or were pictorial books (usually with pictures of wild African elephants and captive Asian elephants). This is why I embarked upon this project. I have also tried to provide a better balance between studies of Asian and African elephants than is available in most other volumes. When I began writing this book I had not even planned for a section on the molecular genetics of elephants, as hardly anything was known of this subject; with the rush of articles in recent years this section had to be added. Very soon this part will certainly become hopelessly outdated.

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