National Geographic News
Photo of elephant family group moving and feeding in Amboseli National Park, Kenya.

An elephant family moves through Kenya's Amboseli National Park.

Photograph courtesy of Graeme Shannon

Christy Ullrich Barcus

National Geographic

Published October 31, 2013

Highly intelligent and social animals, African elephants depend on their sophisticated communication skills for survival in the wild. A recent study investigated the effects of culling and relocation on elephant decision-making and cognition decades later.

Behavioral ecologists from the University of Sussex in England led an international team to study two different elephant populations: one relatively undisturbed group living in Amboseli National Park in Kenya and another translocated population in Pilanesberg Park in South Africa. The Pilanesberg elephants were moved there as calves following managed culling of adults and older juveniles in Kruger National Park in the 1980s and 1990s.

Survivors from the translocated elephant group showed signs of negative long-term psychological impact that affected their decision-making process, paralleling post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in humans, according to the study, which was published in Frontiers in Zoology on October 23, 2013.

Complex Society

Elephants develop complex social relationships over long life spans. Long-term learning and knowledge transfer in the Pilanesberg population was deeply affected by the culling, the study found.

(Read "Elephants Communicate in Sophisticated Sign Language, Researchers Say.")

"Human-generated social disruption has profound effects on important decision-making abilities in wild African elephants that are likely to impact key aspects of their social behavior," said Graeme Shannon, a University of Sussex psychologist who, along with colleague Karen McComb, led the study.

Call of the Wild

Through a series of acoustic playback experiments, the scientists found that human activities, including culling and relocation, have a profound impact on the communication skills, social understanding, and overall cognition of wild African elephants.

While other studies have looked at physiological and behavioral impacts on elephants from extreme human disturbance, such as poaching, this study was the first to assess their fundamental communication skills and cognitive abilities in the wild, Shannon said.

(Learn how to identify elephants in the wild.)

The researchers conducted two elephant call experiments. The first presented elephants with different calls—familiar and unfamiliar—to directly compare their social knowledge. The second experiment simulated calls from elephants of different sizes and ages in correlation with hierarchal dominance. They wanted to see how elephants responded to and understood different levels of social threat through their behaviors, specifically how they used listening skills, investigative smelling, and defensive group formation.

When an elephant family is threatened, they will often bunch together as a group, creating a defensive formation where calves move toward older individuals in the center, the most protected area.

The ability to "distinguish friend from foe," McComb said, "enables defensive responses to be focused on genuinely threatening situations." The calls "provided a way of getting at cognitive abilities that are usually inaccessible in wild elephant populations."

Social Experiment

During the playback experiments they tested how elephants reacted to non-threatening social calls, including those from familiar and young individuals, and more threatening calls, such as those from unfamiliar and older individuals.

They found Amboseli elephants made better decisions in recognizing threatening calls, reacting with stronger listening, sniffing, and bunching behavior, showing that they focused their attention on the most socially dominant individuals, a critical defensive measure.

The Pilanesberg elephants were not able to discriminate in this way—the elephants did not change their response based on the social familiarity or dominance of the caller.

Effects of Culling

Effects of culling and subsequent translocation are twofold. Initial trauma is followed by a subsequent lack of leadership and group role models. The orphaned elephants from Kruger did not have older role models to learn from in Pilanesberg.

"They had experienced terrible trauma," said biologist and conservationist Joyce Poole, another author of the study and a National Geographic explorer. "These calves watched as their mothers and other family members were killed and butchered. Because the people in charge of culls didn't understand the long-term implications, didn't understand they were dealing with intelligent, highly social animals, they, for convenience, tied the calves to their dead mothers while the butchering took place," Poole said.

(Read about orphan elephants in National Geographic magazine.)

"The elephants who had grown up without the benefit of role models respond very differently to threats than do families with an older, experienced matriarch," Poole said.

In highly cognitive and social species, like elephants and primates, social trauma early in life can have major effects on development, the researchers reported, such as persistent fear, hyper-aggression, and infant abandonment.

"Such disruption appears capable of driving aberrant behaviors in social animals that are akin to the post-traumatic stress disorder experienced by humans following extremely traumatic events," the study noted.

Mental and Physical Effects

Without the ability to learn from older leaders, such as the matriarch and other group elders, young elephants suffer a profound loss of social knowledge, affecting their ability to make informed decisions, a deficit that impacts their overall social behavior.

"Rather than focusing energy on genuine threats," said McComb, "their behavior will be randomly disrupted—this could impact on feeding and ultimately reproductive success."

Ongoing Threats

War, poaching, human disturbance to the landscape, translocation, and capture remain issues facing elephant populations. (Culling has not been practiced for over a decade.)

"Poaching presents the greatest threat to elephants today as a result of increasing demand for ivory," Shannon said.

(Read "Blood Ivory" in National Geographic magazine.)

"Poaching is severely damaging the fabric of elephant societies, killing, wounding, and causing long-term trauma to individuals," Poole said. "The social consequences of this escalating persecution can be seen across Africa, and will have repercussions in the years to come."

Social Societies for the Future

Conservationists hope to apply the lessons learned toward future conservation efforts for other long-lived, large-brained social animals, including whales, dolphins, and primates.

Learning and communication is critical for the health and survival of these social societies. Pressure on natural resources and human encroachment is increasing.

"How a matriarch responds to threats can mean the difference between life and death for her family," Poole said. "If you were an elephant, would you lead your family to charge a gang of humans with AK-47s? Or would you run as fast as you can into the forest?"

National Geographic Society funded this study in part.

angela calienni
angela calienni

why cant people leave elephants alone poaching should be totally illegal and violators prosecuted period. There such beautiful majestic creatures that we will never be able to get back. I couldn't even finish the rest of this article because as well written as it maybe, the physiological pain these animals suffer from are tragic. Making it hard to just sit here and read when all you want to do is help.

Grace Cole
Grace Cole

I love the article but whoever wrote it didnt write it very well

Serena Hamm
Serena Hamm

There needs to be a way there can be a stronger force protecting the elephants from being poached.  It doesn't do any good having laws making the ivory illegal.  Drugs are illegal but there is still plenty going around.  Once the elephant is killed the laws forbidding the ivory do not help, we have to stop the killing BEFORE it happens.

keerthi kumar
keerthi kumar

Since my childhood love elephants,near to my native place, there was forest now it is vanishing,in the earlier years elephants trained to hard works to carry logs and some different works.Elephants are very intelligent and learns quickly.In Bandipur Forest in Karnataka India, herds of elephants will be trained and kept in captivity and made use for heavy works.Elephants are very social and friendly animals.But few kills them for want of white teeth This should avoid.Again large forest area is required for their living.The Elephants population is increasing  in South Indian forest it is a good news

Kay Burns
Kay Burns

Aww so sad.  Such a beautiful and intelligent mammal and unfortunately they suffer from someone so greedy they don't care what they do.  I've seen on Animal Planet when they had moved elephants and saddened to hear the negative influence on such a intelligent mammal.

Borsos Laszlo
Borsos Laszlo

Sajnalom hogy egyes emberek tonkreteszik az alatvilagot es a termeszet szepsegeit.Artatlan alatok halnak meg egyes emberek anyagi gyarapodasaert.Azemberiseg nagyon gonosz es kegyetlen tud lenni ha penzrol van szo es sajnos benne van a politikusok keze is mert ok akik csalnak lopnak es hazudnak semmitol sem riadva vissza mert a hatalom az ok kezukben van de azt nem tudjak hogy mit tesznek tonkre es milyen aljas modon viselik es batoritjak mindezt.Egy alatot milioszor tobre becsulok mint egy embert sajnalom hogy ezt kel mondanom de ez az igazsag.

ulli Leithner
ulli Leithner

I thought about a new project: in big pictures, in magazines,maybe on TV......take one or two pictures like this here or of dead Elephants without the ivory-and above in big letters: you wanna buy things out of this? or:You accept killing me for the ivory?or: don`t buy things out of me!I think it has to shock a little and makes more people thinking about this creatures!

Astrid Tepatti
Astrid Tepatti

I'm not sure why we are surprised about the traumatic and long-lasting effect that separation from or absence of parents has on young elephants when we already know what happens to human children. Elephants mourn their dead. They pass on information from generation to generation. Without that knowledge, they have to make things up as they go. Human children with either bad parenting or no parenting grow up to make (normally....I understand exceptions) poor and/or misinformed decisions.....why would elephants, which show so much similarity to us emotionally, be any different?

Bergers Jeroen
Bergers Jeroen

I am glad you wrote this story,but I think people do not learn and would not read the truth.I understand you very good cause my live was traumatic.I want to thank you you placed this story.Greetz Jeroen Bergers from the Netherlands

Silvia Aust
Silvia Aust

Lovely text, so interesting and so... beautiful. I love it! I like all about psychology... animal psychology, as well, why not? Great text, indeed!

Artur Luiz Cunha Cunha
Artur Luiz Cunha Cunha

Até quando o ser humano vai continuar agindo como ser não humano, como animal irracional?

Daryl Johanssen
Daryl Johanssen

As long as human beings can make MONEY off of Nature, they will sell every living creature down to the last blooming rose and twig......because man WORSHIPPED money.

Mother Nature ALWAYS makes the necessary corrections -  sooner or later.

Donnasue Walsh
Donnasue Walsh

I know this story RINGS TRUE FOR MANY SPECIES! We as humans failed to ever live in harmony and at this point I know in my heart it will probably never happen as much as I want it too. I mean if giving my life would change something, may God bless me now. We as a whole terrorize, run ramped over others calling it proper "CONTROL", necessary, etc.... The real work will being when we stop our own population, destruction, etc... Until we humans take responsibility for our own failures we will never accomplish ANYTHING WITH ENOUGH CHANGE TO REVERSE, REVIVE, AND HEAL THESE ELEPHANTS AND ALL OTHERS SPECIES (ESPEACIALLY CHANGING THOSE NOW EXSTINCTED TO NON-EXSTINCTED). I am grateful too ALL those SUPERIOR people whom are existing with the purpose of cancelling out the HUMAN TERROR in Elephants and ALL ANIMALS/INSECTS/CLIMATE, etc.... May God always surround those "Superior" purposed people with the power to prevail.  

craig hill
craig hill

Zoos should be declared anachronistic, primitive alternative versions of seeing non-human animals in the wild---or watched on television---not locked up in jails, which should be dismantled and their captives dispersed to their natural environments.

Recently (Oct 2013) reports of a polar bear tortured by 90 + degree heat without even shade, let alone ice or ice water, in the Mexico City Animal Prison aka "Zoo", went viral. Humans are the worst of all animals in removing other animals from their natural global ecosystems. The next human who has the urge to imprison a parakeet ought to crawl in one of those cages instead, saving other animals from further harm by at least that person.

Let's get a campaign going, Nat Geo, to close and ban all zoos, at least OUTSIDE of their captives' natural habitats. Which in the case of elephants would have to include a herd and the space necessary to roam (iow kill all zoos). 

Mike Bond
Mike Bond

The horrific situation of elephants worldwide must be rectified. The loss of elephants will have an enormous effect on African economies as tourist dollars dry up. No one is doing much, least of all the US (despite some nice words by President Obama). The US is second to China in illegal ivory imports. To stop the killing before elephants go extinct we need to toughen US and international laws, boycott Chinese, Thai and Japanese goods, and set up an international Marshall Plan for elephants.

Mike Bond

The Last Savanna

Michael Rogers
Michael Rogers

@Serena Hamm like supply and demand right the fact its ilegal makes it a valuable comonity cuzz its harder to get id like to help the elephants and humans and every other creature from the evils of the our own kind but the question is how to make a big impact with such a small percent of the power he/she who is within you is greater than he who is within the world wish you luck


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