Wednesday, 11 October 2006

Violent elephants

African elephantThe New York Times magazine has an impressive article, "An Elephant Crackup?", on strange new behaviours emerging among elephant populations. While individual elephants have shown signs of trauma before, entire groups are behaving in violent, dysfunctional ways, sometimes terrorizing nearby human villages. Researchers have drawn striking parallels between these behaviours and those of traumatized, disrupted human populations.
This fabric of elephant society, Bradshaw and her colleagues concluded, had effectively been frayed by years of habitat loss and poaching, along with systematic culling by government agencies to control elephant numbers and translocations of herds to different habitats. The number of older matriarchs and female caregivers (or ‘‘allomothers’’) had drastically fallen, as had the number of elder bulls, who play a significant role in keeping younger males in line. In parts of Zambia and Tanzania, a number of the elephant groups studied contained no adult females whatsoever. In Uganda, herds were often found to be ‘‘semipermanent aggregations,’’ as a paper written by Bradshaw describes them, with many females between the ages of 15 and 25 having no familial associations.

As a result of such social upheaval, calves are now being born to and raised by ever younger and inexperienced mothers. Young orphaned elephants, meanwhile, that have witnessed the death of a parent at the hands of poachers are coming of age in the absence of the support system that defines traditional elephant life. ‘‘The loss of elephant elders,’’ Bradshaw told me, ‘‘and the traumatic experience of witnessing the massacres of their family, impairs normal brain and behavior development in young elephants.’’

The article is fascinating, often depressing, and sometimes profoundly moving.
Okello said that after the man’s killing [Note: by an enraged elephant], the elephant herd buried him as it would one of its own, carefully covering the body with earth and brush and then standing vigil over it.
When a group of villagers from Katwe went out to reclaim the man’s body for his family’s funeral rites, the elephants refused to budge. Human remains, a number of researchers have observed, are the only other ones that elephants will treat as they do their own.

Hat tip to Amba at Ambivablog

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Rodion said...


That is strange behaviour, indeed. I didn't know that elephants burried their dead. Do other animals do this, or just us and them?

Also your technorati code for this post is wonky.

Janet said...

Rodion, thanks for the heads-up. You're right, I'd messed up the code.

As for burying our dead, as far as I know elephants are the only animal that displays this kind of behaviour, but I'm not expert. I'd heard before about how they would return to the skeletal remains of their families to mourn them, but to bury and mourn a human being was a new one for me.

Fern R said...

How sad. I've never heard of animals acting so human-like. The parallels between what is going on in the elephant world and what is going on in the human world are astounding.


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