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Social Bonds and Sage Moms: Elephants in an Age of Poaching

Written by Shifra Goldenberg, 2015-2016 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and PhD Candidate in the Graduate Degree Program in Ecology and Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology

The rest of the family moved away from the river with the fading afternoon light, but Noor stayed on the bank near her mother’s carcass. Noor’s mother, Victoria, died naturally at the ripe old age of 55 in Kenya’s Samburu National Reserve, while her family drank from the Ewaso Ngiro River and rested under its nest-dressed acacia trees. After some time alone, Noor left Victoria to join her group in their journey north.

Living into old age has become a rare privilege for Africa’s elephants. Ivory poaching has increased over recent years to meet the rising demand of international markets, often targeting old elephants with more impressive tusks. In our study population in northern Kenya, this was compounded by a severe drought that killed many old elephants. The result is younger populations. Despite the deaths, many young adult females in their reproductive peak have survived the extended poaching bout in Samburu, with the reproductive potential to grow the population. So then does it actually matter that the grandmothers and great-grandmothers are gone?

Female elephants—and probably male elephants, too—have strong social bonds. Researchers think social bonding has evolved in many species as a way to increase survival and reproduction. One of the benefits of being social may be the potential to exchange information about the environment, shown in hooded crows, great tits, and whooping cranes, to name a few examples. When you provide good information to your relatives, it may help them survive and successfully reproduce, increasing their chances of passing on shared genes.

Enter elephant grandmothers. Elephants range widely, sometimes traveling vast distances to avoid danger and locate the best available resources. Old females may be especially adept in these efforts; they are thought to act as stores of information related to space use, predation avoidance, and social acuity. A matriarchs’ decisions—where to forage, which water sources to visit and when, which families with whom to associate and for how long—usually benefit her close relatives: sisters, daughters, sons, nieces, nephews. This is because elephants usually live in tight-knit groups with their closest maternal relatives.

When Noor gives birth to her first calf, she will join a generation of elephants learning to parent without their mothers. But unlike many, Noor belongs to a family that survived the poaching relatively unscathed. She is never far from Cleopatra or Anastasia, the now de facto matriarchs of the Royals family who themselves are pushing 50. Noor and her future calves will benefit from their matriarchs’ memory and maternal experience. Such is the advantage of strong family ties.

We’ve seen a range of family disruption in the Samburu population, probably related to some families using riskier areas than others. Most elephants in Noor’s age cohort have experienced some degree of family death in the last few years. So what happens to elephants without a familial network like Noor’s to fall back on?

Social bonds seem to be so important in elephant society that bonds with nonrelatives may suffice if relatives are unavailable. Genetic analyses from before the increase in poaching showed us that in Samburu, family groups are not always comprised of relatives. In fact for some groups that have been integrated for years, there is little behavioral evidence to distinguish related from unrelated groups. This is very different from other elephant populations that have had less human pressure, in which bond strengths closely match relatedness.

As we’ve seen poaching intensify in recent years, we’ve watched fragmented groups navigate their new social realities. The finding that families need not be genetically related has born itself out anew as females in Samburu attempt to compensate for the deaths of relatives with new bonds. Some elephants we’ve watched have disappeared. Others have clung to older siblings. Still others have aligned themselves with entirely different families than those they were born into. In Samburu we are trying to understand how successful these different strategies are. The importance of old females to elephant society may become apparent in their absence over the coming years.



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