As many as 100,000 elephants fell victim to poaching in just two years, between 2010 and 2012.
In the elephant poaching world, poachers target males first because they have the largest tusks and then they move on to females. You’d think this latter move would break up elephant societies, as they are matriarchal, but that isn’t the case.
So how do elephant societies survive such an aggressive onslaught?
A new study found that the elephants’ extended families are stepping up to lead the societies when matriarchs were killed. The elephants’ social structure is maintained because the middle-aged females – who were now the oldest in the group – took over leadership roles. These females had enough social knowledge to recreate patterns they learned from the elders.
The study reviewed 16 years of data on elephants from Kenya’s Samburu National Reserve, tracking which individual elephants associated themselves with others. The elephants were identified by ear shape, body markings, or other unique characteristics.
Doctoral student at Colorado State University who coauthored the study, Shifra Goldenberg, says:
“It shows that elephants are socially resilient. In a highly social species, they depend on social bonds, so the fact that we haven’t seen social collapse is good news.”
Still, there are other unknown implications to losing the oldest females, including its effects on elephant calf survival, communication patterns and long-term knowledge of the area and range.