Love Dramas from the Wild Kingdom

Animals have relationship dramas that can rival some of the most iconic movie scripts, and even our own love hijinks, discovers Elena Koshy

WE have love stories for every occasion. We thrive on love. We think we have the monopoly on that warm fuzzy feeling, which inspires all kinds of sappy poetry, candies and gifts. Grown men turn to love-struck mush, ladies swoon and some of the greatest love stories have arisen from the eternal dalliance between humans in love.

However, we have nothing on the dramas that exist in the animal kingdom. You think you got the moves this Valentine’s Day? You haven’t seen anything yet because sometimes animal love and courtship can rival the best movies we have on box office!

Here are some favourite wild animal moves selected by some of our environmentalists and the movies that may (or may not) have taken some inspiration from them.

SHALL WE DANCE?
Great Argus (Argusianus argus)
Selected by Andrew J. Sebastian, bird guide, naturalist and chief executive officer of Ecotourism and Conservation Society Malaysia (ECOMY)

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The Great Argus, the largest among all pheasants, sets the stage for an amazing courtship ritual. Forget John Travolta with his smooth moves in Saturday Night Fever. He doesn’t have anything on the spectacular posturing and dance of the Argus to attract the opposite sex.

Besides, the Argus doesn’t make his moves on just any stage. He actually prepares his own stage, where his elaborate courtship dance will commence!

greatargus
The Great Argus (Image by John Steed)

The male Argus meticulously clears an area, which becomes his dancing ground, deep in the Malaysian rainforest. He then calls out with a loud booming two-tone whistle to advertise his presence to females. When one arrives, the male circles her and spreads his wings into two spectacular fans, flaunting hundreds of eye-spots or ocelli that gives this amazing pheasant the name “Argus”, derived from Greek mythology meaning simply, a god with many eyes. He proceeds to impress the female with an ensemble of foot stomping, hops and fanning of its amazing secondary wings.

However, it seems that there isn’t a happily-ever-after for our courting pair. After a brief copulation, the female flies off to lay her eggs and take care of the young without any help from our fleet-footed Lothario.

Movies where men dance and the women swoon:

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Dirty Dancing: The 1960s film about forbidden romance is a guilty pleasure, where a young girl falls for the charms of the maverick dance instructor. Patrick Swayze shows his smooth moves like the Great Argus and wins over the girl (and hordes of female fans thereafter).

Saturday Night Fever: If you’ve ever seen John Travolta as the local disco kingpin do his moves on the dance floor, you’ll understand why he was the undisputed sex symbol of the 1970s.

HAPPILY EVER AFTER
Great Hornbill (Buceros bicornis)
Selected by Irshad Mobarak, naturalist, conservationist and educator

irshadBring out the violins, the epic romance of the Great Hornbills rivals the best love stories we can offer. Like the elephants, the males go through an elaborate jousting play. With their foot long beaks, these young males clash with each other sometimes even by flying mid-flight — like knights with lances.

They vie with each other, often shoving and trying to push each other off the branch of a tree, to be the only male to offer the preening female a fruit.

greathornbill
Pair of Great Hornbills – Shutterstock

As with most hot chicks, she plays coy. She accepts fruits from all of them (who can resist all that attention?) but eventually, while the males put up a big show of winning her over, it’ll ultimately be her choice. She’ll pick her mate by making it known to her other competing suitors, when she stops accepting their overtures and start accepting fruits only from the male she wants. She makes this decision for life as hornbills are monogamous birds, often pairing for life.

As the nesting season approaches, there are plenty of bill rubbing called bonding and fruit passing between the pair, called conditioning (think holding hands and candlelight dinners). When it’s almost time for her to nest, the pair goes house hunting for suitable cavities in large trees. In choosing a suitable place, the female has the final say. A male can fly up to a tree’s cavity and seem interested but if the female checks it out and flies away disinterested, it’s a no-go and back to scouring the house rental ads. Once a suitable place (with her approval of course) is found and after copulation, she’ll enter the cavity and seal herself in along with her egg.

The male hornbill is now the main breadwinner, bringing home bacon to wife and child that are nestled up in the cavity of the tree for about 12 weeks. The mum keeps house and predators at bay, while the father searches for food to feed his family. Once the fledgling is strong enough to leave the tree, the parents train their young until it is old enough to join the bachelor and bachelorette flocks, to find its own mate.

Movies where men joust or vie (or sometimes both) for true love

knight
A Knight’s Tale: Who wouldn’t want Heath Ledger jousting for your affection? Peasant-born William Thatcher begins a quest to change his stars, win the heart of a fair maiden and rock his medieval world.

Pride And Prejudice: The classic tale of love and values unfolds in the class-conscious England of the late 18th century, where the women are single and suitors aplenty. Then again, forget love stories for inspiration — I’d rather be a hornbill!

SISTERS OVER MISTERS
Asian Elephants (Elephas Maximus)
Selected by Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz, tropical ecologist, primary investigator of Management & Ecology of Malaysian Elephants (MEME) and associate professor in Tropical Conservation Ecology

edfThere’s nothing like female friendships that give women the kind of support they need to navigate through life. However, the original girl squad has her roots in the animal kingdom. Consider the elephant. The elephant herd consists of related females and their offspring, led by the oldest female, the “matriarch”. The social bond within the group is strong, and they take turns in protecting and guiding the young. It’s sisterhood at its best.

The males leave the group when they reach sexual maturity and often live alone. At around 20 years, the males gets into a “musth” — an extreme state of arousal in which highly-elevated testosterone levels coupled with pronounced secretions (think oversexed teenage boys who use too much cologne) — and starts to wander in search of receptive females.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Herd of Asian Elephants (Photo courtesy of MEME)

The female elephant that’s ready to mate sends out an infrasonic signal that’s heard by males (or bulls), who’ll begin travelling towards her sound. The bulls can become aggressive (blame it on all that raging hormones) and compete with each other to vie for the chance to bed the female. The courtship battle that looks rather fierce from the outside — with clashing tusks and deafening trumpets — commences and the most aggressive elephant usually wins. However, it still boils down to the female to make her final selection. Who can blame her for being picky? Being pregnant is no joke for the elephant — her pregnancy lasts almost two years (22 months)!

Copulation takes place and the bull elephant soon leaves the impregnated female to her group of sisters. The birthing process is done with a lot of support from her herd, and the juvenile calf is doted on and taken care by the entire all-female herd. And you think you have best friends?

Movies where hoes come before bros, and where the Girl Code rules:

steelThe Sisterhood Of The Travelling Pants: The story of four best girlfriends who hatch a plan to stay connected as their lives start off in different directions for the summer. Who needs romance when you’ve got besties and a great pair of jeans that fits?

Steel Magnolias: Chronicling the lives and friendship of six women in Louisiana, who support each other through their triumphs, loves and tragedies. A great movie to watch with your girlfriends coupled with a tub of ice-cream on a dateless Valentine’s Day. Romance, shromance — like our Asian pachyderms have proven — who needs it?

(First published in New Straits Times, February 12th, 2017)

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