As thousands more elephants are being shot down every year, it's no surprise that the very society of this social species is breaking down. To help understand how this happens, let's first look at elephant society as a whole.
Elephants live in herds, composed of family members or peers. There are herds that have an entire family line and others that are just a group of bachelors traveling together. Elephants live in herds for socialization and to learn how to be an elephant. Babies learn not just from their mothers, but from sisters, aunts, cousins and grandmas. Wild bulls also congregate together to form bachelor herds, where young boys learn manners and respect from their elders.
Herds are very important for elephants. They do everything together, from sleeping to eating to playing. In fact, if you see an elephant alone (unless it's an adult male), it means something bad has happened.
Now that we know a bit about elephant herds, let's find out what happens when the herd is broken up or destroyed and an elephant is forced to wander alone. Here are some problems that arise from isolated elephants, all of which are destructive to pachyderm society and the human world in Africa as well.
Problem 1: Losing the herd
Picture this: An elephant family was peacefully enjoying a meal, each mother with her calf, and the matriarch a safe distance away, keeping track of them all. Suddenly, gun shots burst through the bushes, and everyone panicked. The matriarch called for the family to retreat, and each mother gather her calf and hurried to safety. One baby tried to find his mother, but in the chaos, he was separated from the herd. After the smoke cleared, he was left all alone, vulnerable and frightened.
When a baby elephant gets separated from the herd, its chances of survival drop rapidly. After all, what chance does a lone baby elephant stand against a pack of lions, or a hungry crocodile? When the adults are no longer around to protect them, baby elephants get caught in snares, fall in wells or slip into mudholes. All of these can spell certain serious injury, sickness or even death
Problem 2: Wild behavior
Yes, elephants are wild animals, and yes, they act crazy sometimes, but when you compare an elephant's behavior when traveling in a herd and when it's marching on alone, there's a marked difference. Herds provide many social needs for young elephants, but one is a check on behavior. Matriarchs, mothers, aunties and even older bulls will teach young members of the herd how to behave. They corral them when they get too rowdy, and keep them from injuring themselves or others.
When an elephant has lost its herd, this check isn't there. As a result, there have been documented raids on farmers' fields and considerable damage done to villages, not because the elephant was hungry and was looking for food, but because it was angry or upset. As I'll discuss in a minute, elephants remember every traumatic experience, and like humans, they find outlets for their strong emotions. And sometimes, these outlets are destructive.
Younger elephants who have lost their family to poaching often carry a fear of humans and guns throughout their lives. Elephants have no natural predators in the wild, so when something creates an intense feeling of fear in an adult pachyderm, you know it's not natural.
Those that are older (especially adult males) can become resentful and aggressive toward humans. There have been tragic cases where an elephant has raided a village and killed humans, or charged a person or group out of sheer rage. Most often these attacks take place after major cullings or poachings. This leads into our third problem-PTSD.
"Bigger and far more powerful than human beings, they normally do not harm us, unless they have been attacked or come into conflict with people over food and migration routes. Again and again, they show mercy."
Problem 3: Poaching PTSD
Because elephants are such social and intelligent creatures (among the eight smartest species, including humans), they experience strong emotions. They react not only to positive stimuli, but also to negative experiences that can literally scar them for life.
Elephants never forget, so when a traumatic event happens, like the poaching of a herd, there's little chance the orphaned baby will move on, mentally and emotionally. In many cases the young orphans refuse to leave their dead mother's side, which puts them at risk of being eaten.
Other babies wander around looking for their mother or their herd, or simply give up and give in to severe depression. Rescued orphans at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust have died because they could not emotionally recover from the trauma of seeing their mother killed. Some miss their mom so much they starve to death by refusing to eat.
In any case, whether the emotional response is anger, depression or intense grief, intense mental, physical and emotional damage has been done.
Problem 4: A loss of knowledge
Poaching doesn't just kill one elephant; it kills a family. Herds are led by an older female, the matriarch, who carries decades of knowledge that she uses to protect, guide and nurture the herd. Matriarchs know where the food and water are, what the safest paths are, how to avoid conflict with other herds and when the seasons will change. Their expertise is unmatched and cannot be replicated, so it is crucial for the survival of the herd.
Poaching takes out the elephants with the largest tusks, i.e., the older elephants whose tusks have had time to grow long. This targets the leading matriarchs and bulls, which in turn wipes out the wisdom they have. When the leader dies, the next oldest (or most capable) elephant takes over, but the chances that they possess the same amount of knowledge as the former matriarch are slim.
Because of this, poaching produces new, young matriarchs who aren't yet ready to lead. It has been observed that when an older matriarch leads, the females in the herd reproduce at a faster rate. However, with inexperienced leaders (and especially after a traumatic experience like poaching) elephant's actually try to avoid being pregnant, knowing that pregnancy slows down the herd and creates another mouth to feed. With a long-established reputation as an endangered species, this bodes ill for elephant survival.
Summing it up
Poaching doesn't just kill the elephants hit by the bullets, it kills entire families and generations. Scores of elephants have been lost over the last four decades, and elephant society, as well as the African species, is being slowly destroyed because of it. This is why I blog, to share the news that ivory, in it's best form, is not a product: it's not a trinket, a necklace, a statue or a pipe. In it's best and purest form, ivory is a color.
Kerry Skiff is a conservation advocate and recent journalism graduate of Northern Kentucky University. She follows the ivory trade around the world, and uses her voice to educate Americans about their role in animal conservation.