Older male elephants keep younger males calm and help prevent conflict with humans, says a new study reported in Science News in December 2021.
Researchers at the Centre for Research in Animal Behaviour at the University of Exeter in England conducted research with a British-based charity organization called Elephants for Africa that is also a registered non-government organization (NGO) in Botswana, Africa.
The researchers studied 281 male elephants in an all-male area in Makgadikgadi Pans National Park in Botswana for three years. They divided the elephants into four groups, by age: two groups of adolescents and two groups of adults. In one group of adolescents, the elephants were 10-15 years old, and in the other group of adolescents, the elephants were 16-20 years old. In one group of adults, the elephants were 21-25 years old, and in the other group of adults, the elephants were older than 26 years of age.
The researchers found that adolescent male elephants were likely to be aggressive towards non-elephant targets, such as vehicles, livestock, and other species of animals when there were fewer older males (bull elephants) in a group. Conversely, the group was calmer when there were more older bulls present.
When they were alone, adolescent males were more aggressive and more fearful of non-elephant targets, than when older elephants were present. The researchers think that if adolescent male elephants are socially isolated, they may be more of a threat to people (a non-elephant target). Therefore, they think that the removal of old male elephants from a herd could lead to increased human-elephant conflict.
Research leader Connie Allen said, ‘Our research draws attention to … the complex relationships and connections that occur between males in non-breeding all-male societies. It appears the presence of more knowledgeable, older elephants may play a key role in keeping the younger, less experienced males calm and in lowering their perception of their current threat level, which means that there’s less risk of aggression towards humans and other species.’ She added, ‘Alternatively, older bulls may police other males’ aggression directed toward non-elephant targets.’
Professor Darren Croft said it was essential to understand the causes of aggression in male elephants to help reduce human-elephant conflict.
This means that older male elephants are important members of a herd. Older males help shape the behaviour of younger males, and help them to be less aggressive, including towards vehicles and other targets.
When the older males are not present in the herd, the young ones are more aggressive. Greater numbers of older males in the herd leads to less aggression in the all-male herd.
Professor Darren Croft said that the research findings are useful for wildlife managers. The removal of old male elephants from populations could lead to an increase in human-elephant conflict.
‘Elephants are highly social animals,’ said Associate Professor Lauren Brent of the University of Exeter. ‘This study clearly shows how wildlife management can be informed by how elephants interact and react to each other.’
Researchers at the Centre for Research in Animal Behaviour at the University of Exeter in England will continue to conduct research on elephant social behaviour.
University of Exeter. “Wise old elephants keep the young calm.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 21 December 2021. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/12/211221212451.htm>.
Photographer: Martina Nicolls
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