Meet Me in the Bai

Forest clearings are important to forest elephant social structure

Rebecca Ebiana
May 22, 2017 · 4 min read
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Dzanga Bai in the Central African Republic © Elephant Listening Project

What do elephants, nuclear reactors, and the sun have in common? Fission and fusion. Just as atoms divide and fuse, elephant social groups combine and split as they move through their environments. This is known as fission-fusion sociality¹. Elephants are the subjects of a complex fission-fusion social system, and as such their social lives are fascinating and elaborate. Although it is very difficult to observe forest elephants in their dense rainforest habitat, forest clearings provide intriguing insights into their social life.

Andrea Turkalo’s long-term observational research at the Dzanga Bai in the Central African Republic has been foundational in the study of forest elephant society. Turkalo spent decades at Dzanga, tracking individual elephants and studying patterns of bai visitation and social structure. Her 2013 study, coauthored by George Wittemyer and ELP’s Director, Peter Wrege², is a detailed outline of forest elephant ecology in Dzanga over the past 20 years. Her research established that forest elephant social structure is group based, the most fundamental group being a mother and dependent offspring. Groups on average are comprised of 2 to 4 elephants, although elephant associations extend far beyond this core group². Turkalo also found that males are more solitary than their savannah elephant counterparts. They were primarily observed alone, and when they did form groups, they were smaller than groups formed by females. Additionally, Turkalo’s observations suggest that male elephants use clearings to work out dominance hierarchies and develop social skills.

Similar but smaller scale observational studies by Vivian Fishlock, Phyllis Lee and others³ ⁴ outline elephant social organization in other central African bais. Like many other aspects of elephant biology, fission-fusion sociality is better known in savannah elephants than in forest elephants. These studies provide support for the hypothesis that forest elephant socialization is similar to the fission-fusion sociality of savannah elephants, and they provide insights into the ways that forest elephant socialization differs from savannah elephant socialization.

In one 2013 study, Fishlock and Lee⁴ observed elephants in Odzala-Kokoua park in the Republic of Congo. They tested and found support for the hypothesis that bais are ‘social arenas’. Elephants stayed longer in a bai when other elephants were present and remained even longer when joining a new group. When visiting bais, elephants socialized in larger groups than when foraging in the forest. These observations all point to the conclusion that bais are like marketplaces or restaurants, where large and dynamic groups of elephants actively interact and reinforce social bonds.

Elephant socialization patterns are even more fascinating when examined at a closer level. In another study, Fishlock,Lee and Thomas Breuer³ found that the sex and age of an elephant could be a predictor of how it will interact with other elephants. They observed that forest elephants in the Republic of Congo’s Nouabalé-Ndoki park are more solitary than savannah elephants; about 31% of elephants observed in the bai were solitary. Similar to observations by Turkalo in Dzanga, the most frequent and willingly solitary elephants in Nouabalé-Ndoki were middle aged males. Females were more social than males overall; solitary young female elephants were never observed, and females tended to form larger groups than males. Younger females typically formed groups with older females, and senior female elephants were always joined by other elephants, they never initiated joining a group. Young elephants of both sexes were observed without their mothers. However, the researchers hypothesized that mothers may be hidden in the edges of the forest when young elephants are spotted alone. The social nature of forest clearings is especially significant to the development of young elephants, as they use bais to interact with peers and develop competition skills³.

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Young male forest elephants ‘joust’ — a playful fighting that hones skills © Elephant Listening Project

Forest elephants are elusive creatures, so there is still much left unknown about their social structure. Elephants display fission and fusion sociality, but because of the difficulty of observation, the nature of forest elephant socialization within the forest is uncertain. As ELP researcher Daniela Hedwig points out, it is unknown how groups and social relationships are maintained while elephants are not in bais. However, the organization and intricacy of their social lives is yet another piece of evidence to suggest that elephant lives are richer and more dynamic than we can imagine.


1 Couzin, Iain D. “Behavioral ecology: social organization in fission–fusion societies.” Current Biology 16, no. 5 (2006): R169-R171.
2 Turkalo, Andrea K., Peter H. Wrege, and George Wittemyer. “Long-term monitoring of Dzanga Bai forest elephants: forest clearing use patterns.” PloS one 8, no. 12 (2013): e85154.
3 Fishlock, Vicki, Phyllis C. Lee, and Thomas Breuer. “Quantifying forest elephant social structure in Central African bai environments.” Pachyderm 44 (2008): 19–28.
4 Fishlock, Vicki, and Phyllis C. Lee. “Forest elephants: fission–fusion and social arenas.” Animal Behaviour 85, no. 2 (2013): 357–363.

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