Young male elephants are more aggressive when there are fewer elders around, a new study shows.
Researchers studied the behaviour of 281 male African savannah elephants in an all-male area in Makgadikgadi Pans National Park, Botswana, over three years.
They found younger males in the area were less aggressive towards humans and other species, as well as vehicles, when more older males were present.
This shows the vital importance of older ‘bull’ elephants, which are targeted by trophy hunters and ivory dealers for their precious tusks.
As younger bulls are more aggressive without their elders, removing old male elephants from herds may lead to more conflict between elephants and humans.
The oldest bulls in all-male groups are the most likely to hold leading positions when the elephants travel
The study, in collaboration with Elephants for Africa, examined the movements of male African savannah elephants (also known as bush elephants) in Makgadikgadi Pans National Park, Botswana
THE AFRICAN SAVANNAH
African savannah elephants are the largest land animals on Earth. A mature male African savannah may stand up to 13 feet tall at the shoulder and weigh 14,000 pounds.
As they move, they push over trees to get to their branches and roots, helping maintain the grasslands, and they use their tusks and trunks to dig for water, creating pools that many other animals need to survive.
Habitat loss and poaching are the biggest concerns for their survival. As the human footprint has grown in Africa, elephant habitats have been converted to farmland, deforested by industrial logging and mining, and otherwise developed by roads and settlements.
Poachers kill elephants for their ivory and meat, and farmers sometimes kill them to protect their crops, which elephants often raid.
The IUCN lists African savannah elephant populations as vulnerable. Both male and female African savannahs have tusks and are therefore targeted by hunters.
Three living elephant species are currently recognised – the African bush elephant, the African forest elephant, and the Asian elephant.
A noticeable distinction between African savannah and African forest elephants is size – the savannah is larger and has bigger and more curved tusks.
Asian elephants have much smaller ears than both African species and usually, only the male Asian elephant sports tusks
Unfortunately, the African savannah elephant (Loxodonta africana) is currently being driven to near extinction due to hunting and is currently listed as ‘vulnerable’ on the IUCN Red List.
According to the WWF, populations of elephants in southern and eastern Africa that once showed promising signs of recovery are at risk due to the recent surge in poaching for the illegal ivory trade.
The new study was conducted by researchers at the University of Exeter, in collaboration with conservation group Elephants for Africa.
‘Old male bull elephants are often thought of as redundant and are targeted for trophy hunting,’ said study author Professor Darren Croft at the University of Exeter.
‘These new results highlight the important role that old male elephants can play in shaping the behaviour of younger males, which are more aggressive in the absence of old bulls – including towards vehicles.
‘These findings provide an important message for wildlife managers and suggest that the removal of old male elephants from populations could lead to an increase in human-wildlife conflict.
‘Alternatively, older bulls may police other males’ aggression directed toward non-elephant targets.’
As a result of their great size and visibility within open areas, African savannah elephants are well studied and populations are easily estimated.
Each family unit usually consists of around 10 females and their calves, and the older male adults associate with these herds only during mating.
Pre-adolescent male African savannah elephants live in the herds, which are led by females, but between ages of 10 to 20 years they leave their natal family, spending most of their time in all-male groups.
Elephants looked at for the study were divided into four age groups – two adolescent groups (10 to 15 years; 16 to 20 years) and two adult groups (21 to 25 years; 26 years and over).
By the time the males reach the age of about 26 years, they are considered mature.
The study tracked populations of the African savannah elephant, the largest land mammal in the world. Pictured are males
IS THE IVORY TRADE BANNED?
Trade of elephant ivory (pictured) is illegal
In a landmark decision, the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) agreed an unprecedented international ban on the trade of ivory on October 17, 1989.
While unrestricted international commercial trade in ‘new’ ivory is banned (CITES 1989), many countries continue to allow some form of commercial trade in ivory within and across their borders.
Increasingly, these domestic markets are being recognised as significant drivers of elephant poaching and ivory trafficking.
With fewer old bull elephants around, elephants were more likely to be aggressive towards non-elephant targets such as humans, vehicles, livestock and other species.
The adolescent elephants, in particular, were more aggressive and fearful to non-elephant targets when they were alone compared to with other males. This indicates that socially isolated adolescents may also be an increased threat to people.
‘Our research draws attention to what is often a rather overlooked area in animal behaviour – that of the complex relationships and connections that occur between males in non-breeding all-male societies,’ said lead author Connie Allen of Exeter’s Centre for Research in Animal Behaviour.
‘It appears the presence of more knowledgeable, older elephants in groups may play a key role in keeping the younger, less experienced males calm and lowering their perception of their current threat level, which means there’s less risk of aggression towards humans and other species.’
The new study has been published today in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
Last year, Exeter researchers showed that old male elephants play a crucial role in herds by leading young males to food and water.
The team found the probability of leadership – measured by which elephant walked at the front of travelling groups – increased along with age.
This 2020 study was also based on observations at Makgadikgadi Pans National Park, Botswana. Elephant populations are decreasing in the country due to poaching and conflict with humans.
Old male elephants that are targeted for their ivory by hunters actually play a crucial role within the herd role by leading young male groups to food and water, a 2020 Exeter study found
In December 2019, Botswana announced a decision to start issuing elephant trophy hunting licences, angering international conservationists.
This year, the Botswanan government issued 287 licenses for elephant hunting, on the basis that money earned from the activity supports local communities.
Botswana earned $2.7 million (£2 million) from elephant hunting in 2021, officials revealed in November, according to reports.
ILLEGAL TRADING OF WILDLIFE FOR PETS, TRADITIONAL MEDICINES AND LUXURY FOODS IS DRIVING DECLINES OF OVER 60% IN SPECIES ABUNDANCE, STUDY CLAIMS
The international wildlife trade is causing more than a 60 per cent fall in species abundance, a 2021 study revealed.
An international team of researchers, including experts from the University of Sheffield, performed a ‘meta-analysis’ of the wildlife trade from 31 studies.
They found a 62 per cent fall in species abundance overall, as well as an 80 per cent decline in abundance specifically for endangered species, due to both legal and illegal trade.
There was also even declines as high as 56 per cent in protected areas, according to the experts, who say current protective measures fail animal species in the wild.
Unsustainable harvesting, including hunting, trapping, fishing and logging – which often occurs in protected areas – is one of the biggest threats to biodiversity.
100 million plants and animals are internationally trafficked each year to sell as pets, traditional medicines, bushmeat or luxury items, such as ivory from elephants, which is still traded despite a ban more than 30 years ago.
The international wildlife trade is worth somewhere between $4 billion and $20 billion per year, according to a previous report from Global Financial Integrity.
Read more: Global wildlife trade ‘is causing 60% fall in species abundance’