As many know, elephants are highly intelligent beings with complex social structures, and so it is no surprise that elephants’ social skills can be impaired when a familial structure is broken apart.
A new study published in Frontiers in Zoology now confirms the detrimental effects of breaking up an elephant herd. The study out of the University of Sussex in the UK examined an elephant herd who had lost adults to culls between the 1970s and 1980s, revealing that these elephants never fully developed their fundamental social skills, particularly in responding appropriately to another elephant’s call.
The study is the first of its kind to show that an animal’s social skills are significantly harmed by “man-made disruption,” reports BBC News.
Two elephant herd behaviors were compared in the study – one from an undisturbed group at Amboseli National Park and another herd from Pilanesberg National Park in South Africa that was affected by culling activities.
The elephants in the first herd were able to effectively respond to a call from a strange female elephant as they bunched up in a defensive manner and moved collectively toward the sound. They then remained calm when a sound of a familiar elephant was played.
The other herd of elephants responded “randomly” and were unable to properly distinguish between the calls, suggesting that they cannot tell the difference between a friend or a rival.
“This really suggests that the breakdown in their social fabric, even though it occurred decades ago, has had a real effect on their decision-making processes,” said lead researched Karen McComb to BBC News. “Their social understanding has been impaired.”
Earlier reports of orphaned elephants showed similarly disturbing effects of culling activities. According to Science, orphaned male elephants at Pilanesberg National Park and another reserve attacked and killed 107 rhinos over 10 years – something elephants have never done before. Even some orphaned female elephants showed highly aggressive behavior and attacked park tourist vehicles.
A cull or hunt is often one of the first measures considered in wildlife control, yet McComb’s study clearly illustrates that this method can negatively affect surviving members of an animal group. Hopefully its results will influence a reconsideration of the ways we “deal” with wildlife.
Image source: Benh LIEU SONG / Flickr