The Social World Of Elephants

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By Warren Glam – Content Writer

From herds of wildebeest who march in their hundreds of thousands to every leopard lolling in a baobab tree, life in East Africa depends on the savanna. It is beautiful. It is unforgiving. Above all, it is vast.

If anything in the region can inspire the same awe as the savanna’s immensity, it is the depth of feeling among elephants. Indeed, their relationships are rich and confusing in ways we know all too well. Here is a glimpse inside their world.

Elephant on safari
Personalities

Elephants can differ wildly from one another, with their personalities affecting how they relate to others. Some are natural leaders. Others are not. Some are popular, while others lack the magnetism that puts them at the centre of things. Certain elephants will respond aggressively to perceived threats. Others are more likely to retreat. Confidence, playfulness and curiosity are also qualities that elephants do not share in equal measure.

These differences explain realities such as bullying among calves, and why the same elephants occupy prime spots around watering holes.

The Matriarch

The matriarch, or female leader, has more influence over the herd’s structure and fortunes than any other elephant. Ordinarily, she is the oldest and largest individual, and the elephant most closely related to the previous matriarch. The herd tends to gravitate around her, making her easy to recognise.

Essentially, elephants take their cues from the matriarch, noting any sudden changes in her bearing. They also look to her in times of crisis. If they do not, her leadership of the group may be less clear.

That is, members of her herd may have big personalities. If she can’t establish her dominance over them, the group may elect a new leader.

A Good Leader

A successful matriarch is not a self-appointed leader. Instead, she earns respect through wisdom, confidence and relationship building. Her courage in crisis situations, her tremendous memory of places and her skilful touch in challenging social circumstances make her invaluable. Over time, the herd will accept her as a repository of social and ecological best practices.

Elephants in Ruaha National Park
Herds: Families, Bond Groups and Clans
Families

Within the herd, the basic unit is the immediate family. It usually ranges from six to 12 elephants – the matriarch’s calves, her sisters and their calves. The matriarch leads the family and the herd, regardless of whether it’s larger than just her family.

Family members are loyal and sympathetic to one another. They also cooperate to a high degree. For instance, a mother’s sisters will support her during childbirth and later, when her calves need training around finding food and water and fitting in.

Bond Groups

Herds split when they become too large or when food and water are scarce. Under these circumstances, elephants form bond groups. Members are usually related.

Bond groups are not as committed to each other as families, though they are fiercely loyal. Cohesion within these groups depends on a few factors. The mix of personalities, how closely related the members are, and the season in question are all relevant considerations. The matriarch’s quality is more important than all of them. If she’s a good enough leader to hold them together, the group may last.

Clans

Clans are the next social level among elephants. They comprise families that share the same foraging areas when resources are scarce during the dry season. For the most part, a number of bond groups and several families combine to form one clan.

Generally, families stick to their own clan’s foraging area during difficult years. But, when resources are plentiful, different clans will come together around an abundance of food. They’ll also enjoy a stimulating social environment. Individual elephants may change clans, bond groups or even families during these gatherings.

Elephant-Naboisho-Camp-Conservancy
Males

A male elephant grows up with his female relatives. Like his sisters, he learns at his mother and aunts’ feet, though he’ll never be as close to the group. Instead, he’ll hang back in events such as birthing and childcare, whereas his sisters and female cousins will not.

He’ll leave home between age nine and 18, and stay away for increasingly lengthy periods over the next one to four years. Eventually, he won’t come back at all.

He’ll begin a different phase of his life at this time. Separated from familiar faces and relationships, he’ll have to learn a different set of rules based on his standing in the male population.

Joining an all-male group may be an option. Many males do, though these collectives are looser than the bonds between female elephants.

He’ll fulfill his primary duty to the species when he becomes sexually active. He’ll wander from one group to the next in search of receptive females, and ultimately mate with them. The mating period lasts for two to three days, after which he’ll leave and search for more mates.

Emotions

Many East African creatures have a ruthless streak. It serves them well when tragedy can strike at any moment, be it through an attack, scarcity of resources or bad luck. What matters is the next meal and the survival of their species. Elephants are different.

Grief

Most animals don’t flinch at abandoning the weak to die. Elephants, on the other hand, are distressed by these situations and continue to grieve long after they happen. Given that they live for about as long as we do, and in close-knit herds, deaths are understandably traumatic for whoever’s left behind.

Mothers and aunts mourn still-born calves. They’ll also grieve for offspring they lose later in life, showing their pain through sunken eyes and drooping ears.

Herds cover their dead with leaves and twigs. They’ll even pause over elephant skeletons they encounter. After fondling them in contemplation, they’ll hide them under nearby bushes.

Joy

Elephants are social creatures. Within families, they’ll frequently touch one another affectionately. Even relatives who’ve parted ways will express joy when greeting each other at watering holes or breeding spots. They’ll do so by turning around in circles, flapping their ears, trumpeting or screaming. Elephants also trumpet the births of calves. Beyond that, they’ll gather around mothers to show support and help newborns suckle.

Playtime is another feature of life in the herd. Whether alone or in groups, elephants have been known to toss or twist objects from their environment in some way, purely to amuse themselves.

Their Place in East Africa

East Africa is a land of astonishing dimensions. The savanna is vast. Mount Kilimanjaro pierces clouds. Baobab trees live for hundreds, if not thousands of years.

The feelings between elephants run deep.

Encounter Mara elephant at sunset

Their Place in East Africa

East Africa is a land of astonishing dimensions. The savanna is vast. Mount Kilimanjaro pierces clouds. Baobab trees live for hundreds, if not thousands of years.

The feelings between elephants run deep.

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