Elephants Never Forget When You Slaughter Their Family

Culling an elephant pack can destroy the survivors’ social skills

African elephants in Kruger National Park
African elephants in Kruger National Park Clive Reid

They say that elephants never forget: they never forget a friendly face, or an injury, or the scent of an abuser. And, as a pack, says new research, elephants never forget the effects of mass killings carried out in the name of conservation. Culling an elephant herd, directed killing that often targets older elephants first, leaves some survivors distraught, and creates a suddenly young herd that is deaf to elephant social norms. Science magazine:

African elephants that have lived through the trauma of a cull—or selected killing of their kin—may look normal enough to the casual observer, but socially they are a mess. That’s the conclusion of a new study, the first to show that human activities can disrupt the social skills of large-brained mammals that live in complex societies for decades.

Conservationists used to selectively trim elephant packs to keep their numbers down. But, by targeting the older members of the group, they were also killing the pack’s social memory. For the survivors, says Science, “Scientists have known since the late 1990s that many of these elephants were psychologically affected by their experiences during the culling. Other studies have described these effects as akin to posttraumatic stress disorder.”

Much of an elephant pack’s memory is tied up in the leading matriarch. With her picked off, says the new research, the elephants don’t know how to confront unexpected dangers, like the sudden appearance of a strange dominant female elephant. Science:

Because the Pilanesberg elephants grew up without the social knowledge of their original families, they will likely never properly respond to social threats and may even pass on their inappropriate behaviors to the next generation, the team concludes in the current issue ofFrontiers in Zoology. And it may be that elephant populations that are heavily poached or otherwise adversely affected by human activities are similarly socially damaged, they say.

More than just eroding elephant culture, they say, this loss of social memory could make elephants that have gone through a cull less likely to survive and reproduce than elephants who didn’t lose their families.

More from Smithsonian.com:

How Poaching Led to Serial Killer Elephants
Elephants Choose to Stay Inside Safe, Less Stressful National Parks

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