Elephants are well-known for their close family ties and social complexity with no individual having more of an impact on the family than the matriarch. Often the oldest and largest adult female in the family, the matriarch is the core of elephant society shaping the daily lives of family members. They provide the knowledge, from their surroundings, to safe migratory routes, water availability, threats from predators and other vital information. All of which are essential for the well-being of their families
The poaching Crisis:
The current poaching epidemic is wiping out scores of elephants and their matriarchs causing an increasing number of juvenile elephants to be left unattached, or orphaned. Researchers are concerned of the impact that the loss of these matriarchs is having on the ability of younger ones to survive and thrive. Consequently STE funded a project to chronicle how the orphans of Samburu are responding to their altered circumstances by collecting detailed information on their survival, behavior, space use, and hormones (particularly stress).
Save the Elephants have been studying the elephants of Samburu and their social networks since 1993 making them one of the best studied populations in the world. Dr. Wittemyer who has been heavily involved in this knows individuals by name and has a great knowledge of their highly complex social structure. With all the data collected over the years in Samburu, this research could offer a fantastic insight into how the poaching crisis is effecting elephants socially.
Filling their Mothers Shoes:
STE’s innovative real time monitoring using GPS collars combined with behavioral analysis between elephants has exposed an extraordinary insight into the fluid social hierarchy of the Samburu elephants.
Amazingly, the research has found that when key social individuals have been killed, younger female elephants are assuming the roles once held by their mothers, thus maintaining the networks keeping extended families together.
It is understood that the young females are replicating the social contact pattern of their mothers, causing Dr. Wittemyer to state “If their mothers are highly social and their mother dies, the kids tend to be highly social. And if the mothers are not, the kids tend not to be.” Although losing their matriarch/mother has considerably altered these young females lives, the daughters of the poached elephants have prematurely stepped into the shoes of their mothers, filling the role of a matriarch to lead their families.
In conjunction to this research, Ms Parker a Ph.D Researcher, is collecting dung samples of orphans for stress hormone analysis. The results will give an understanding into the physiological effects of being orphaned. Ms Parker’s long term goal is to understand how humans, through poaching, “have altered the well-being of another highly social, cognitively advanced species,” she said. Although she admits that “Science is a slow process”, amazing results are already being witnessed.
These fascinating results and the social flexibility witnessed allow one to view the sustainability of elephant populations with a glimmer of optimism. Dr. Wittemyer says “[the story of the Samburu orphans is one of the most poignant examples of the importance of collaboration and friendship I have seen in a nonhuman system”. Furthermore, the Samburu Elephant Project’s extensive data makes it one of the leading sites for educating policy makers, conservation scientists and the public about the current issues. With tougher penalties and the enactment of the Wildlife Act we believe we are heading in the right direction.
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