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How Culling an Elephant Herd Affects the Surviving Orphans

By Russell Tenofsky

The recent documentary Blackfish vividly depicts the consequences of kidnapping young orcas from their mothers in the wild and their ensuing long-term psychological problems. A new study has now revealed that elephant culls as far back as the 1980s have resulted in similar ongoing, life-long psychological effects on the surviving orphan elephants and their families.

Photo of elephants from Amboseli National Park, who have not been exposed to culls.

Scientists from the University of Sussex led a study involving two distinct elephant populations in Africa. One population, living in Amboseli National Park in Kenya, did not experience any sort of cull and grew up in a “traditional” matriarchal elephant society. The other, living in Pilanesberg Park in South Africa, consists entirely of orphan elephants relocated after “managed” culls in the 1980s and 90s.

The groundbreaking study, published in the October 23, 2013, edition of Frontiers of Zoology, reveals that the relocated pack of orphans living together in Pilanesberg display the classic signs of long-term psychological effects, including symptoms that closely resemble post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“It is a groundbreaking study because it is the first to demonstrate, experimentally, a direct connection between the effects of culling and specific psychosocial harms,” Dr. Lori Marino, NhRP’s Science Director said to Science Magazine. “It shows unequivocally that elephants are psychologically damaged by culling.”

“It shows unequivocally that elephants are psychologically damaged by culling.”

The scientists first played audio recordings of familiar and unfamiliar elephants to fourteen elephant families in Pilanesberg and thirty-nine families in Amboseli. Then, in the second part of the experiment, they recreated calls from elephants of various ages and sizes. The first experiment was an effort to study the social knowledge of the elephants, and the second was an effort to understand the elephants’ reactions to various levels of social threats.

The scientists found the elephant families living in Amboseli Park responded in “typical” coordinated elephant behavior. When the scientists played the call of an older, unfamiliar female elephant, the entire family would freeze, turn toward the threat and form a wall, trunks raised to sniff the wind, ears pricked to listen for any potential threat.

The elephants living in Pilanesberg Park did not react in this “typical” manner at all. “The pattern there was no pattern at all; their reactions were completely random,” said Karen McComb, one of the authors of the study. Their ability to “distinguish friend from foe enables defensive responses to be focused on genuinely threatening situations.”

Since the elephants who live in Pilanesberg Park came into contact with humans on numerous occasions, “You might think because of their history that they were just more accepting of strangers. But it wasn’t that. They simply failed at picking out the calls of older, socially dominant animals,” Dr. McComb said.

The scientists found that the early psychological trauma had greatly affected the orphan elephants’ social skills throughout their lifetimes, even some thirty-plus years after the culls.

“They had experienced terrible trauma,” Dr. Joyce Poole said. “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.”

“On the surface, they look like they’re now getting on okay,” Dr. McComb said. “But we found a way to go deeper into their minds, and that’s how we found the deficits in the social decisions that they make.”

The early psychological trauma had greatly affected the orphan elephants’ social skills throughout their lifetimes, even some 30-plus years after the culls. The young orphans had no way to learn social skills as they were brutally torn away from their families at an early age. There was no matriarch or older siblings to protect them, alert them to danger or teach them the other basics of elephant society. These deficits will linger to affect every phase of their lives.

“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 of the University of Sussex.

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

As other studies have noted with chimpanzees and bonobos, the absence of a mother can lead to definite social disadvantages later in life. This current study shows that lacking a matriarch has similar effects on elephants. Combine this trauma with witnessing the brutality of a cull and living with strangers who also suffer similar psychological damage, and you have the elephants of Pilanesberg Park.

“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.

Although the culls have basically ended, poaching is still rampant and presents precisely the same consequences for the orphaned elephants.

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

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