If you have a 2021 Ethos desk calendar you’ll notice the eye-catching image in June of an African elephant reared onto his hind legs, trunk extended, in a determined attempt to reach the fresh juicy leaves on a tall tree. This picture is a powerful image demonstrating ‘effort’ accompanied by the quote from Edgar Allan Poe “The world is a great ocean, upon which we encounter more tempestuous storms than calms”. How appropriate then, as we find ourselves coming out of lockdown, we consider making an effort once again in many ways. What is it that makes us, and so many other people, feel such an affinity with elephants?
African elephants are certainly impressive. They are the largest land animals on earth; easily distinguished from their slightly smaller Asian cousins by their large ears resembling the shape of the African continent. They live longer than most animals, often up to 70 years of age. But our fascination with elephants goes beyond respect for their size or longevity. We delved deeper to find out about the habits of these intelligent creatures …
The family group
Elephants live in family units made up of females and juveniles, in which all adults cooperate to rear all the young and protect them from harm. A family unit usually includes between 2 and 16 adult females and the shared parenting between mothers, grandmothers, aunts and adolescent females gives the calves a better chance of survival than they would have with their mothers alone.
Within the family unit individual elephants display different personalities: some are popular, others not; some have leadership qualities; some are extrovert; others less social. Older females with greater knowledge undertake different roles than the younger ones.
The group is led by a matriarch, usually the biggest and oldest elephant, chosen for her ecological knowledge and her ability as a leader. She tends to be the main decision-maker, although scientists have recently observed that any member of an elephant family may suggest a plan of action and even a juvenile’s suggestion will be heard. Suggested plans may be followed, ignored, discussed or negotiated – elephants communicate with a variety of subtle movements and gestures.
The matriarch’s lifetime experience and learned knowledge of the landscape enables her to guide her herd over long distances to find water and food in times of scarcity. At such times a family with a younger matriarch may link with an older leader’s family, to share the benefit of the more experienced elephant’s knowledge.
Family members greet one another with a special ‘greeting ceremony’. Bonds between individuals are strong and special relationships between elephants may last a lifetime, even beyond a long separation or death. Scientists have watched elephants rejoicing at a family reunion after being apart for many years. They have witnessed elephants pausing over old bones to reflect or mourn the memory of a friend or family member.
Bond groups and clans
Family units frequently come together with others, forming a bond group of about six families with whom they have consistent, friendly interactions. Relationships are weaker than those within the tight-knit family unit, but bond group ties are still strong and members have their own special greetings. Bond group members form alliances against aggressors, assist in the care of each other’s offspring and defend one another in times of danger.
When food is plentiful, a number of bond groups may come together to form a large congregation or clan.
From the age of about eight or nine, male elephants withdraw to the fringes of their family group and often wander off to play with other families. Here they forge lasting friendships and learn, through play, to judge the size and strength of males of similar age.
At around 14 years old, males leave their mother’s family group and live alone or in a loosely-connected bachelor group. They take notice of older males, observing them, copying their actions, and often learning to avoid aggressive and potentially fatal encounters in the future.
During sexually active periods males travel large distances, roaming from one herd to another, looking for a receptive mate with whom they will remain with for a couple of days before moving on to search for another eligible female. In this way elephants can maximise reproduction and avoid inbreeding – a single bull can find several mates from different family groups each year. Age is the key to successful reproduction as, until they grow in height and weight, young male elephants can’t compete with older males. Their peak reproduction age is between 40 and 55 years.
African elephants are an endangered species, under threat from poaching and from human encroachment which has led to loss and fragmentation of their habitats.
With the decline of elephants comes a threat to a whole ecosystem as African elephants play a critical role in shaping their habitat. During the dry season they use their tusks to dig up dry riverbeds, creating watering holes which many animals drink from. Through their dung they help to spread the seeds of plants across the environment. By feasting on trees and shrubs in the forest, elephants create pathways for smaller animals to move through. In the savanna they uproot trees and eat saplings, helping to keep the landscape open for zebras and other animals of the plains to thrive.
Elephants are …
People are drawn to elephants because we understand and admire their characteristics. Elephants are intelligent, wise, cooperative, empathetic and caring. They develop deep social bonds. They learn from one another. Elephants are indeed amazing.