The other elephant


Shermin de Silva, Postdoctoral Researcher

Date Published

My name is Shermin de Silva, and I’m a postdoc with George Wittemyer. I actually study Asian elephants. You know, that other elephant; the one seen in circuses, tourist camps and trekking operations. But there is a wild counterpart to those captive beasts, and we are interested in how the Asian and African species compare to each other. It surprises many people to hear that the Asian and African elephants are about as distinct as humans and chimpanzees – that is, they are each other’s closest relatives, but separated by six million years of evolution; in addition to ranging over two different continents. So the elephant camp here in Samburu will be my home for a several weeks, as I ride along with STE and try to digest what we see. How I ended up in Samburu begins more than ten years ago, when I was an undergraduate at UC Berkeley. I heard about this person named Wittemyer studying elephants in Kenya, but back then little did I imagine I’d ever be studying elephants myself.

I was interested in the philosophy of language and communication. Being of Sri Lankan origin, I had seen Asian elephants in captivity – people have tamed and used elephants for at least five thousand years, though they were never, strictly speaking, domesticated. They seemed so intelligent, with an intriguing communication system. But when I looked into what was known about the social behavior of Asian elephants in the wild, I was surprised to find very little published information. It was settled, this would be my animal. I enrolled in a Ph.D program and started a field project in Sri Lanka. It’s now in its eighth year.

I had modeled our field methods according to researchers of African elephants. Funnily, this name Wittemyer kept popping up. I’d always wanted to see with my own eyes what I’d read about in papers and books. What did a family of African elephants really look like, move like, act like? After nearly a decade of experience with Asian elephants, how would the behavior of this sister species look to me? The more I watched our elephants, the more puzzled I became. At the heart of the matter emerged a single question: what shapes animal societies? The question itself seems deceptively simple, but the answers have eluded scientists for decades. To tackle it, we needed to be able to compare similar or closely-related species in different environments.

Well, I always did like a challenge.

After I finished my degree, I was naturally curious to see what this Wittemyer was doing. We finally got a chance to work together thanks to a postdoctoral fellowship from the National Science Foundation. So here I am, and I can’t wait!