Elephants’ Social Hierarchy May Hold Clues for Addressing Human‑Animal Conflict
Elephants are grappling with a perilous fate. Climate change, urbanization, poaching, and dangerous interactions with humans have resulted in a precipitous decline of these animals globally. More so for the African Savannah elephants, who were re-categorized from “vulnerable” to “endangered” status by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species this year. Its population is declining across 13 countries. In India, as elephants lose their natural habitats and are pushed out of protected areas, they increasingly come in contact with humans, leading to clashes.
A new study about elephants may, however, offer insights into solving a crisis that adversely impacts people as well as wildlife. Published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B on Wednesday, the study looked at the natural hierarchy in some elephant societies, which are inherently male-dominated.
“Elephants are highly social animals. This study clearly shows how wildlife management can be informed by how elephants interact and react to each other,” Lauren Brent, a co-author on the study and an associate professor from the University of Exeter, said in a press statement. In other words, conservationists can look at natural social mechanisms in male elephants groups to find ways to conserve elephants while also protecting local residents.
Brent, along with other researchers, looked into the Makgadikgadi Pans National Park region in Botswana. Most sightings in the area are of male elephants, who spend a majority of their lives in all-male groups. They filmed individual elephants at common social gatherings to observe their behavior, and reached two conclusions.
One, young males were more likely to display aggressive behavior towards humans and other objects when they were alone. Two, when they were in the presence of adult male elephants, their behavior was much calmer — towards each other and humans. It is unclear whether the adult male elephants are deliberately “policing” young ones’ behavior, or more passively impacting the way juveniles behave around them.
“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,” Connie Allen of the Exeter’s Center for Research in Animal Behavior, lead author on the study, said.
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Another dimension of the study looked at a cyclical reason for increased conflict between elephants and humans. Poachers seek older elephants for their ivory tusks, which make for a lucrative business. But as evidenced by the current study, taking out older male elephants from the social hierarchy will exacerbate aggression among juvenile elephants — which will worsen the survival of elephants and people.
The idea is juvenile elephants may be more aggressive when alone. “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,” Darren Croft, a co-author on the study and a professor of animal behavior at the University of Exeter, said.
In India, poaching doubled during the lockdown. “But, poaching is only one of many threats to India’s elephants. They’re already facing habitat loss, conflicts, and accidental deaths across railway tracks,” Business Insider noted. Between 2018 and 2020, 1,401 people and 301 elephants died in India, according to Bhupendra Yadav, Union minister for environment, forest, and climate. This number was a sharp increase from previous years.
Moreover, human-related activities (such as acts like poisoning or electrocuting elephants as “retaliation acts”) kill between 80 to 100 elephants each year, Sandeep Kumar Tiwari, of the Wildlife Trust of India and the IUCN SSC Asian Elephant Specialist Group, told CNN.
Arguably, then calling this dynamic between elephants and humans a “conflict” would be a misnomer; since they both need to share the same space and resources.
The current research then offers a nifty insight. Elephants survive only if forests survive, and also if the natural hierarchy of their social groups remains undisturbed. These findings could reduce interspecies conflict, each protecting the other. “Future research on social behavior will continue to enhance conservation efforts of this iconic species,” Brent said.
As conservationist Mark Shand once noted: “Save the elephants, and then you save yourself.”