Poaching Deaths Cause Elephants to Rearrange Families, Not Collapse Socially
By Shayne Jacoplan
December 20, 2015
A Colorado State University study has found that while the poaching of an elephant group’s matriarch can damage the group’s social structure, the animals are able to adapt by either joining other groups or having a new matriarch emerge, according to the New York Times.
Older elephants are often the targeted by ivory poachers for their larger tusks, and elephant herds are led by older female elephants, meaning that a group’s loss of its matriarch to poachers is very common, according to the source. Researchers at Colorado State University studied the behavior of elephant groups in this position.
“We were expecting some sort of social collapse, especially knowing how important matriarchs are to a society,” says Shifra Goldenberg, a wildlife ecologist at Colorado State University and an author on the study, which is published in the journal Current Biology.
The researchers found that young females often step up and take over leadership roles after the poaching of a group's matriarch. These damaged social groups would bond with other damaged groups to stimulate recovery.
“Families that dissolve because of poaching group up,” says Goldenberg. “Sometimes it is genetically based, but we also saw unrelated groupings.”
Goldenberg cites an example of a family that lost all of its adults to poaching in a short span of time, in which the remaining three young males and three young females were led by a female to join another group whose matriarch was still alive.
“We thought we’d be seeing a bunch of kids running around that don’t have much guidance,” Goldenberg notes. “But the story here is that they are figuring it out.”