Old Male Elephants Are Key to Their Societies

They are leaders for the young males that join their bachelor herds.

A young adolescent next to an older bull in the Makgadikgadi Pans National Park
A young adolescent next to an older bull in the Makgadikgadi Pans National Park.

 Connie Allen

In African elephant societies, females have always been viewed as the leaders. Elephants live in matriarchal groups, typically led by the most knowledgeable female. She is also usually the oldest because she knows where to get food and water and how to handle any dangers the herd might face.

The group is composed of mothers, sisters, daughters, aunts, and young sons. After they are at least 10 years old, the boys leave to join a group of bachelor males or strike out on their own. In elephant societies, males aren't believed to contribute much outside of breeding.

But a new study suggests that old male elephants play a similar guiding role, leading their all-male groups.

"Previous research on the importance of elders in social mammals has largely focused on the role of older females, particularly in the context of fixed matriarcal groups and the benefits of heightened knowledge being passed on to close kin," the study's lead author Connie Allen of the University of Exeter tells Treehugger. "Our research, focusing on male elephant society showed that in the collective movements of all-male groups the eldest bulls were the most likely to lead."

The study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, found that the oldest bulls often help the younger, less experienced males find water and food.

"The fact that older males also hold a leadership role in the separate male society of African elephants (as old matriarchs do in the breeding herds of females) is very interesting as the evolutionary benefits to the 'leader' are less clear," Allen says. "These groups of males are unlikely to be closely related and the male groups are very temporary and fluid — so the fact that older bulls tolerate the younger adolescents that target them for their heightened knowledge in navigating the environment is very interesting. Future research will investigate potential benefits to mature bulls in associating with adolescent males." 

Males and Mentoring

herd of male elephants
Young elephants join a bachelor herd between the ages of 10 and 20. Connie Allen 

Most research on elephants has focused on females. They're easier to study because they stay in tight groups in a limited area. Males, on the other hand, tend to range much more widely because they aren't tied down by babies or other family limitations.

For the study, researchers from the University of Exeter worked with the conservation charity Elephants for Africa in Botswana’s Makgadikgadi Pans National Park, Botswana, where most of the elephants are male. They studied the movements of male African savannah elephants, also known as bush elephants.

They sorted the elephants into age groups (ages 10-15, 16-20, 21-25, and 26-plus) and found that the odds of leadership increased the older an elephant was. The researchers measured leadership by which elephants walked at the front of traveling groups.

The youngest adolescent males have come from their natal families. Young males live in matriarchal herds, leaving to join all-male groups when they're between 10 and 20-years-old.

Caitlin O’Connell-Rodwell, an ecologist at Stanford University and the author of "The Elephant’s Secret Sense," has studied elephants, including those in Namibia’s Etosha National Park, for more than 20 years.

In a TEDYouth Talk, O'Connell-Rodwell says, "Young males really need mentoring from the elders and those gentle giants are very good at doing that. Leaving a family is a really hard thing for the males but they survive and figure out who to hang out with."

The Impact on Hunting

The findings could be valuable, the researchers say, because hunters often justify targeting bull elephants because they are "redundant" and aren't key for breeding or the species survival. Other than habitat loss, poaching and conflict with humans (such as killing by farmers over threats to their land) are the main causes of death to elephants, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.

"We argue that selective hunting of old bulls is not sustainable. Past research has shown in fact that old bulls are the prime breeders (they sire the most offspring) in African elephants," Allen says.

"Our findings suggest that killing them could also have detrimental effects on wider elephant society through loss of leaders who help young, newly independent males navigate in unfamiliar, risky environments."

Older elephants are often targeted by hunters for their larger tusks. In May 2019, Botswana announced it would lift a ban on elephant hunting. The country is home to an estimated 130,000 elephants—about a third of Africa’s remaining savanna elephants, reports National Geographic. It had largely seemed to have avoided the recent poaching crisis.

"The intricacies of male elephant societies have often been ignored in management and conservation decisions with the underlying assumption that once they leave their herd they are solitary and independent," said Dr. Kate Evans, director of Elephants for Africa and a member of the Gothenburg Global Biodiversity Centre in a news release.

"This study furthers our understanding of male elephants and the importance of older bulls, enabling more sustainable management decisions for both male and female elephants to be made."