Elephants and their Complex Social Behaviors

Elephants are highly social and intelligent creatures, with social networks that can grow to be as large as a human’s. Elephant mothers are very tender, protective, and nurturing to their young. In fact, all the female elephants in the herd protect and take care of the young ones, like a daycare center. They will gently coax the younger elephants to walk in the middle, while the older elephants walk along the perimeter, serving as a protective barrier from predators and danger.

When male elephants reach a certain age, usually about 15 years, they leave the herd to roam with other males, living a largely solitary existence until it is time to mate. Female elephants, on the other hand, serve as the backbone of the herd. The Matriarch is the eldest female of the group, and serves as the general leader and caretaker for all the younger elephants. She receives respect and much affection.

Besides humans, elephants are the only animals that show affection and perform rituals for the dead. When a relative or friend dies, the entire herd will gather around the body, caressing it lightly with their trunks, an act which seems to show their mourning. This simple act would be amazing enough, but they do not stop there. Elephants will return to the body for years afterward, even when nothing but the bones remain, simply to look and perhaps touch the remains with their trunks. Not only do they mourn, but they continue to mourn even when the body looks nothing like an elephant anymore. Their memories and highly developed social ties keep them coming back to the ‘grave’ to pay their respects.

Elephant social behaviors are so highly evolved that elephants can even show signs of some very human emotional disorders. In many parts of Africa, reports of violent altercations between elephants and humans are becoming more common. Growing evidence shows that the higher rates of violence are due to the thinning elephant herds and slow unraveling of the elephant’s complex social fabric. Poaching kills many of the elder mothers and matriarchs of the herds, leaving young elephant mothers without direction, help, or guidance. Many young elephants witness their mothers being shot, and this causes them much disress, just as it would a human. These young elephants must somehow mature without their mothers, and thus the male elephants, already prone to violent outbursts and general unstability, grow uncontrollable and go on rampages. As the social structure of the elephants grows weaker and weaker, they will become more unstable and violent.