On the Loss of a Matriarch


Brad Spanbauer, International Intern

Date Published

What we lose when we lose our elders

I have recently lost a very dear person to me while I have been away from home here at STE camp. Although I knew it was coming, I never imagined it would be while I was away – I suppose no one imagines such things. This woman was very much like another grandmother to me, her family and I are very close, and her granddaughter is my best friend. Her passing got me thinking about elephants, as she and her three daughters were so very close. When a group of elephants comes upon the remains of an elephant, they will spend some time carefully caressing the bones, and smelling them to see if they possibly recognize this individual who has passed. This sense of mourning is just one of the many ways that we can connect with elephants.

The poaching crisis across Africa has reached devastating levels in very recent years. It is estimated that an elephant is killed somewhere on the continent every fifteen minutes. That is almost 100 elephants each day.

The elephants are being poached for their ivory tusks, which are part of an elephant’s teeth. These tusks can vary greatly between individuals, and some elephants do not grow tusks at all (because of a genetic mutation). Poachers are in search of elephants with the biggest and best tusks, for which they will get a better price through illegal trade, mostly in China. It is often the older elephants, both male and female, that possess these tusks and all too often lose their lives because of an antiquated belief around the prestige of owning ivory. When one of these magnificent matriarchs is killed, not only does the family group lose a leader, they lose something far more valuable; and the world loses another intelligent creature, not only ecologically essential, but also equipped with emotions and senses, just like human beings.

Dr. Charles Foley, of the Tarangire Elephant Project, sought to find out what is truly lost when a female matriarch is found dead at the hands of humans. Foley’s research indicates that when a matriarch dies the family loses something incredibly important: knowledge. Elephants, in the absence of immense human encroachment, can live into their seventies, sometimes even older. These older individuals have likely lived through numerous experiences: floods, droughts and the like. They have lived. They can utilize the information from their experiences to ensure the success of their family members. Elephants are extremely intelligent animals and are known to be capable of making spatio-temporal maps. They can remember where certain food and water resources are at certain times of the year. These matriarchs can then lead their families in dire times to these places, because they have the knowledge and memories to do so. When they are gone, who can lead them? It is typical for the next oldest female to take over and lead the group, but if the matriarch who has passed had 20 more years of knowledge, or the new matriarch has not experienced an extreme drought or flood, the family could be in trouble. With an increase in climate changes and weather events such as floods and droughts, it is likely that the knowledge to survive such instances will be crucial. In short, this is exactly what Foley’s work highlighted. Intact families with older matriarchs were more likely to journey longer distances to find ample resources such as water during dry spells, and therefore had greater success with offspring surviving. Groups who had lost older females, some of them to poaching, were less likely to travel great distances in search of food and water and often lost calves. It is this kind of work that that is extremely important. It highlights that by the hands of humans we are not only killing an individual elephant for it’s tusks, in addition, we are in some cases sentencing others to death through the loss of knowledge. There is some irony here. Are we truly conscious of what we are doing to the planet and the other animals we share it with? Do we truly understand the wider impact of a single action? Perhaps it is the loss of our own knowledge that has brought us to this point in the first place.