Calf interacting with a juvenile  Calf and mahout playing in river  Training session  Street view with elephant  Mahout on a male elephant  Mahout with a juvenile male

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Juvenile males interacting
Two juvenile males interacting in captivity. Placing the tip of the trunk into another elephant's mouth is a common form of social interaction between individuals that trust each other.


Calves playing
One-year-old calves playing. Growing up in a social group with older elephants is important for learning social skills and signals.


Group of females at Elephant Nature Park
A social group consisting of unrelated, rescued elephants at the Elephant Nature Park in Thailand. Even though family groups of females in the wild normally consist of close relatives, elephants can also form social bonds with unrelated individuals.


Male inspecting female for estrus
The male on the left is sniffing a female to find out whether she is in estrus. The body language of the female speaks of its relaxed state: the trunk hangs long, with the tip resting on the ground. The chains on the elephants are not necessary for this encounter: they are the traditional drag chains that are used in some parts of India, making it easier for the mahout to track the elephants when they are grazing by themselves in the forest.


Mahout caressing trunk of calf
The trunk is the most sensitive body part of an elephant. In social contact between elephants, touching each other with the trunk and wrapping the trunks together are signs of affection. This is why caressing the trunk is also a good way to strengthen the bond between a mahout and elephant.
Social contact

Elephants are highly social animals. Touching each other is an especially important form of social contact. In captivity, planning how to enable social contact is one of the most important parts of a good quality of life.


Social groups and networks

In the wild, elephants live in complex multi-tiered societies. Each individual has some close companions and a wide network of other acquaintances. Some of the old males were previously believed to be an exception and to live a solitary life, but observations in the wild have revealed that males too maintain a network of social bonds.

Elephants have an excellent memory, and they recognize familiar elephants after years or even decades of separation. Biological relatives tend to be especially important, at least for females, but elephants also form strong bonds with unrelated individuals.

There are some touching cases of related females in captivity that have been reunited after years of separation. The typical reaction is excessive greeting and caressing, followed by immediately resuming their close companionship in daily life.


Calves growing up with adults

As in all social species, growing up in a social group enables the young to learn how to use the proper social signals in each context. Even though the need for social contact is innate, many of the specific sounds, gestures and other social signals require learning.

In captivity, many calves are reared without full contact with a social group. In several countries, it is still common to wean calves from their mothers at an early age, already at one to three years.  In many cases, the weaned calf is therefter kept without opportunities to touch other elephants. In such an environment, the social skills of the calf remain to some extent impaired, as it has not had an opportunity to learn the wide repertoire of social signals used by elephants.

The well-being of captive elephants would be remarkably improved, and their working ability will remain at least as good as before, if the calves are allowed to remain in social contacts with their mothers. The practice of early weaning was originally started because of the punishment-based system of training: mother elephants became furious if they saw or heard their calf being injured in training, so trainers adopted the practice of separating the mother and calf before starting to train. If calves are trained by positive reinforcement, separation of the mother and calf is not needed. On the contrary, the presence of the mother helps the calf stay calm and focused, which speeds up the training process.


Introducing an elephant to a social group

Even if an elephant has been kept with only limited contact to other elephants at a young age, it is often possible to gradually introduce it into a social group later in life. The social life may not become as fully nuanced as it would be in a socially experienced elephant, but it can still greatly improve its quality of life. However, to avoid rish of aggression, such reintroduction requires careful planning and overseeing. It is essential to seek advice from someone who has earlier successfully carried out the same process.

The most challenging cases are adult elephants that have not seen other elephants since their early years: they are often afraid when first seeing such a creature. However, even they do not need to be hopeless cases. The individual temperament of the elephant, and especially the skill level of the person planning and overseeing the gradual familiarization with other elephants, are decisive factors in the process.


Males and females

If a captive group includes one or more adult males as well as females, some precautions will need to be observed. Some males try to mount females even when the latter are not receptive. In the wild, the female can simply walk away, but in captivity such encounters can result in the male injuring the female. The riskiest combination is a chained female and a free-to-move male. If some of the males show a tendency to harm females, they have to be kept separate especially during musth the male reproductive period.

If the elephants are not meant to breed, the estrus cycle of females needs to be monitored, in order to separate the males when needed. The most reliable way of doing this is to regularly test an urine sample.


Human-elephant contact

Many mahout cultures discourage gentle touching between the mahout and elephants. However, mutually pleasant forms of physical contact are an excellent way to improve the relationship between the elephant and mahout. Luckily, touching a close companion is an important part of social behaviour in both species involved - humans as well as elephants. This is why it is such a powerful tool in strengthening a social bond between a human and elephant.

The trunk has a central role in elephant-to-elephant interactions. They caress each other's foreheads and temples with the trunk tip, wrap their trunks around each other's heads, intertwine trunks and so on. Trunk interaction is therefore also an important part of human-elephant contact. Gently stroking the trunk is one of the best ways to help an elephant relax.

It is important to bear in mind that in the elephant world, caressing and touching each other is for familiar individuals only. Many elephants feel uncomfortable in close proximity with unfamiliar people, and even more uncomfortable if these try to touch - regardless of how much the person in question loves elephants. In most cases, the best way to show one's love for an elephant is to allow the elephant keep a comfortable distance to the person who, from the elephant's point of view, is a stranger.

Copyright © Elephant Experts 2014-2016
Photo copyright © Elephant Experts and the photographers:
Minna Tallberg, Helena Telkänranta, Marc Pierard, Karpagam Chelliah,
Nirvay Sah, Sudhir Yadav and Ramesh Belagere