Younger Male Elephants Look to Their Elders for Calm, Study Finds

Young elephants with an older elephant
Older elephants can help keep younger elephants calm, scientists have found. Photo credit: Connie Allen

Anyone who has ever spent a cozy afternoon in the presence of a beloved grandparent knows that the wisdom of age can have a calming influence. It turns out that this is true for elephants as well.

A new study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B in December found that male elephants are more aggressive when there are fewer older elephants around, and this may have important conservation implications. 

“These findings add to an increasing concern regarding potential wider social disruptions to elephants that may occur if trophy hunting of older male elephants continues to be a permitted activity,” study lead author Connie Allen of Exeter’s Centre for Research in Animal Behaviour told EcoWatch in an email. 

Age-Old Wisdom

The research, led by the University of Exeter and the organization Elephants for Africa, focused on a group of 281 male African savanna elephants (Loxodonta africana) who live in an all-male area of Botswana’s Makgadikgadi Pans National Park, the University of Exeter explained. 

“Males in many large mammal species spend a considerable portion of their lives in all-male groups segregated from females,” the study authors explained. “In long-lived species, these all-male groups may contain individuals of vastly different ages, providing the possibility that behaviours such as aggression vary with the age demographic of the social environment, as well as an individual’s own age.”

The scientists spent three years filming the behavior of male elephants along the Boteli River and divided them into four age groups: 

  1. Adolescents aged 10 to 15
  2. Adolescents aged 16 to 20
  3. Adults aged 21 to 25
  4. Adults 26 or older

They conducted something known as “focal sampling,” Allen explained, which means they followed individual elephants and noted every instance of fearful or aggressive behavior, whether it was directed against elephants or non-elephants and the age makeup of the other elephants present during the aggression. The observations led to two major discoveries. 

The first was that all adolescent elephants demonstrated less aggressive behaviors towards non-elephant targets when they were in the presence of adults. For adult elephants, however, the presence of other males did not influence their aggression. 

“This suggests that adolescents experience large reductions to their anxiety and perception of their current risk level when grouped with other males – and social buffering against risks such as predatory threats may be a key benefit afforded to younger males in associating with other males,” Allen told EcoWatch. 

Another possibility is that older adults are more experienced and therefore have a more accurate understanding of threats. Trophy hunting was not practiced in Botswana at the time of the study, and older adults who were more familiar with the area may have felt more secure in their safety. 

Secondly, in what Allen said was the “most important result,” male elephants were more aggressive towards non-elephant targets like livestock, vehicles and other animals when there were fewer of the oldest elephants around. 

“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,” Allen said. “Alternatively, older bulls may police other males aggression directed toward non-elephant targets.” 

This means that removing elephants 26 years and older from a male group could make the remaining elephants more dangerous to people. 

A Violent Feedback Loop 

Understanding aggression in elephants is important for both elephants themselves and the humans they live alongside. When the government of Botswana lifted an elephant hunting ban in 2019, it argued that one reason for the change was an uptick in human-elephant conflict. However, past research has indicated that hunting will only make such conflict more likely.  

“We already know from past work in other study areas that physiologically stressed elephants are more prone to aggressive encounters with people, and we know that elephants that experience psychological trauma at the hands of people (e.g. experience culling of other elephants) can have behavioural abnormalities for life – such as hyper aggression,” Allen said. 

She pointed to a 2007 study that documented altered behavior in African elephants whose lives had been disrupted by human activity. 

The new findings lend support to the idea that hunting and poaching will only increase elephant aggression towards humans. 

“Old male bull elephants are often thought of as redundant and are targeted for trophy hunting,” study co-author and University of Exeter professor Darren Croft said in a statement emailed to EcoWatch. 

That means that the findings can help with conservation best practices. 

“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,” Croft added. 

Elephants on the Brink

The research comes as the population of African savanna elephants has declined by 60 percent in the last 50 years, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. They are considered endangered by the IUCN, and the main threats to their survival are poaching for ivory and habitat loss. 

The research from Allen and her team underscores how understanding the social dynamics of elephants is important for finding ways to save them. 

“Animal behaviour research is crucial for guiding appropriate ways to interact with the environment and wild species,” Allen told EcoWatch. “Mis-management of wild populations can have severe knock-on effects and can exacerbate existing conflicts.”

Allen said that there is relatively little research on the interactions between unrelated males in all-male, non-breeding groups of animals, and this gap is something she hopes to continue to fill with her research. One idea would be to replicate studies on how elephants perceive and respond to risks in family groups with all-male groups. Previous studies have played lion recordings for family elephant groups and observed how the animals close ranks around the matriarch. Would the younger male elephants bunch around their elders or follow them away from the threat? 

“In general, I would like to further pursue research on the importance of older males elephants in bull society,” Allen said. “My other research has looked at how older males lead younger males in the landscape in locating critical resources – and I would like to further study exactly how it is that social and ecological information is obtained by younger males undergoing independence.”

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