African elephants are the largest land-animals on earth. Though generally peaceful, timid animals, elephants can be extremely dangerous if they feel threatened or confused by humans, cars, or other animals.
The elephant species live in herds and function in a matriarchal society, meaning the mother or oldest female in any given herd is the leader of the pack. All the young elephants look up to their matriarchal ruler to learn which plants to eat, how to use their trunk, and how to act like an elephant. Thus, just as human parents teach their children how to behave like civilized human beings, elephant parents demonstrate to their children how to behave like proper elephants.
If young elephants are not taught by their parents how to behave, these enormous animals can take a turn for the worse and cause chaos and destruction in the African bush. This is exactly what happened as a result of the elephant culling that occurred in Kruger National Park in the 1980’s and 1990’s.
Kruger National Park officials deemed it necessary to cull (meaning “ to reduce the population of elephants through selective slaughter”) because their population of elephants was growing rapidly, dominating the national park. After the culling, there were 8,000 elephants left in Kruger Park. Most, if not all, of the elephants that remained were juveniles or babies, who had not yet developed into fully functioning members of elephant society. Although the culling ended in 1994, elephants today are still impacted by the early psychological trauma that disabled them from learning innate elephant skills as well as social skills.
A study conducted by the University of Sussex carried out a comparative analysis of two distinct elephant populations, of which one group lived in Pilansberg Park in South Africa, and the other resided in Amboseli National Park in Kenya. The elephants that were studied in Pilansberg are the same elephants that were orphaned due to the Kruger culling in 1980-1990.
To test their hypothesis, Dr. Graeme Shannon, the leader of the study, utilized physical observation as well as pre-recorded sounds to test the animal’s social understanding. Shannon played recordings of other elephants and monitored the responses that the elephants in Pilansberg Park and Amboseli National Park returned.
It was discovered that the elephants in Amboseli reacted to the call of an unfamiliar elephant in a defensive way, bunching together and moving towards the sound. Similarly, when Amboseli elephants heard a familiar elephant call, they remained relaxed and went about their business grazing in the bush. Both of these reactions are normal.
On the other hand, the elephants in Pilansberg had sporadic reactions. Professor McComb, who assisted in the study, explains, “There was no pattern at all to their responses.” This suggests that the orphaned elephants could not distinguish between a friendly, familiar elephant, and an estranged, adversary elephant, which supports the claim that the orphaned elephants, and there by the offspring of orphaned elephants, have not been taught social cues despite culling having occurred decades ago.
Further pre-recorded sound was used to evaluate whether or not the Pilansberg elephants could differentiate between the call of a dominant, older elephant and that of an inferior youngster. The results of this trial held true, exhibiting that the orphaned elephants could not tell one call from the other. Thus, despite having stopped 20 years ago, this study is the first to truly exploit evidence that important social abilities in elephants have been compromised due to one time separation by death of family members.
Overall, the research determined that the orphaned elephants, even as adults, suffered from post traumatic stress disorder which resulted in impaired social understanding, hyper aggression, and inability to communicate effectively with other elephants. These results demonstrate that elephants are incredibly social, herd-oriented animals that rely on each other and their social structure in order to thrive and develop individuals and as a whole species.
Doctor Shannon and the other scientists from the University of Sussex who were involved in this research are hopeful that this study will be taken into account to understand the long lasting impact that culling can and does have on elephants, should plans to cull a species arise again in the future.