Study reveals how the social lives of orphaned elephants are impacted by poaching

"Access to older, dominant individuals is critical for juveniles," said researcher George Wittemyer.
By Brooks Hays  |  Oct. 31, 2017 at 3:21 PM
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Oct. 31 (UPI) -- New research suggests the social lives of orphaned elephants are significantly altered by the loss of their mothers to poaching.

The maturation process for young elephants in highly social, closely knit communities is reliant upon the relationships between calves and their moms and aunts. Poaching can disrupt these social relationships and a new study -- published this week in the journal Scientific Reports -- suggests orphaned elephants aren't always smoothly reintegrated into the group's social fabric.

"Previous work in this and other elephant populations has shown that like other social species, elephants strengthen existing bonds if they lose important social partners," Shifra Goldenberg, a postdoctoral researcher at Colorado State University, said in a news release. "Our study suggests that despite this compensatory social behavior, orphans experience a social disadvantage compared to non-orphans."

Goldenberg and her colleagues have been monitoring the social patterns and behaviors of elephants in northern Kenya's Samburu and Buffalo Springs National Reserves for several years. The most recent findings suggest orphaned elephants spend less time interacting -- body rubbing and greeting -- with mature females during feeding.

Orphans have slightly more access to older females when groups are resting, but generally spend more time interacting with non-dominant group members.

With poaching, habitat loss and drought putting continued pressure on elephant populations, scientists worry the growing number of orphaned elephants could negatively affect social cohesion and rates of reproduction among elephant communities.

"Access to older, dominant individuals is critical for juveniles, as mature individuals are knowledge repositories and have preferential access to resources," said George Wittemyer, associate professor at CSU. "Losing this access may have long-term ramifications for orphans."

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