The social balance of elephant herds is the subject of much research. Scientists from the University of Exeter have published their results of how older male elephants have a calming influence on the behaviour of younger ones and of the whole herd.
Connie Allen of Exeter’s Centre for Research in Animal Behaviour explained:
“Our research draws attention to what is often a rather overlooked area in animal behaviour; that of the complex relationships and connections that occur between males in non-breeding all-male societies.
“It appears the presence of more knowledgeable, older elephants in groups may play a key role in keeping the younger, less experienced males calm and lowering their perception of their current threat level, which means there’s less risk of aggression towards humans and other species.
“Alternatively, older bulls may police other males aggression directed toward non-elephant targets.”
Just a hundred years ago it was estimated that there were 12 million elephants in Africa. Today that number has dropped to 400,000. Every year at least 20,000 elephants are killed in Africa for their tusks. According to data from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) African forest elephants have been the worst hit.
” the greatest threat to African elephants is wildlife crime, primarily poaching for the illegal ivory trade, while the greatest threat to Asian elephants is habitat loss, which results in human-elephant conflict. WWF has advocated for an end to commercial elephant ivory sales in the US and other major markets like China, Thailand, and Hong Kong as the most effective and efficient solution to end this illegal ivory tradeWWF Elephant Species
Older elephants are often the ones targeted by the trophy hunters. This action in itself produces a destabilising effect on the rest of the herd now without those calmer males.
Professor Darren Croft, of the University of Exeter, said understanding the causes of aggression in male elephants is essential for reducing human-elephant conflict. He said:
“These new results highlight the important role that old male elephants can play in shaping the behaviour of younger males, which are more aggressive in the absence of old bulls – including towards vehicles.
“These findings provide an important message for wildlife managers and suggest that the removal of old male elephants from populations could lead to an increase in human-wildlife conflict.”
The paper, published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, is entitled “Reduced older male presence linked to increased rates of aggression to non-conspecific targets in male elephants.”