Social Behavior in Elephants

Elephants have long roamed the earth, as mastodon, as wooly mammoth, hunted by man, praised by man, servant to man. The long memory of the elephant stretches far back into time, farther than that of man’s.

The centuries have not reduced this magnificent beast to a mere novelty on display in zoos. Human kind has come to recognize in these land giants similarities in their social culture to our own. These mammals care for their young in much the same way as we do. Their commitment to family is life long, as is our own. They are social creatures, bonding to members of their herd, and they honor their dead.

An elephant herd is matriarchal, led by a dominant female. Full-grown males do not travel with the pack; they roam alone, with the loosest of bonds to tie them to their families. The males are not in charge in elephant society; it is a female’s world.

The birth of a calf is a greatly anticipated event within a herd. The gestation period for elephants is about twenty-two months. When the pregnant female is near to giving birth, her closest relatives become extremely protective, and are in attendance during the delivery. The newborn calf, whether male or female, is lovingly attended for several years. But once the males have reached a level of maturity equivalent to human teen years, they are turned loose from the herd. The young males travel for some time in small herds, in search of females. But these herds are impermanent, and in adult hood, male elephants are solitary creatures.

Why does the matriarch push out the males into which she and her companions have vested so much? When the males begin to show their need to dominate, their need to mate, they become a threat to the health of the evolutionary progress. The matriarch is preventing closely related males and females from mating. The male calves, known as bulls, are not violent, but are disruptive in their displays for power and sex. The matriarch and other dominant females will force the bulls to the fringes of the herd, and ultimately banish them. This causes the bulls to wander, and ultimately mate with females from distantly related or unrelated herds.

Courtships are a large part of the mating seasons for females, known as cows, and bulls. The matriarch of a herd will make note of the approaching male or males, and allows the process of selections to begin. Until the cow comes into heat, the male is allowed only playful, gentle contact. But once the cow comes into heat, she will demand the bull meet her needs. Here, though, marks the beginning of the end of the relationship. Soon, he will be banished by the herd, and sent back to his solitary life.

The complexities of the herd hierarchy are aimed toward preservation. The matriarch and dominant females maintain the genetic integrity of not only individual herds, but of the species as well. That elephants have long life spans, up to 70 years, and retain knowledge of their relatives, is a highly unusual characteristic in the animal kingdom. This recognition for genetic diversity is one of the ways elephants have maintained a presence for so many centuries.

Elephants even remember their dead. Though no archeological evidence exists supporting elephant graveyards, there is anecdotal evidence of elephants responding to their dead in ways similar to human responses. Elephants mourn. They react to the dead bodies of other elephants. They will, with notable rituals, touch the tusks of dead elephants, and even take the tusks in their trunks and smash them against trees and rocks. The ivory, it would seem, will be relinquished to the earth along with the body. Elephants will cover the body with leaves and grass, and will visit the gravesites’ of fallen companions.

For many, many years, man and elephant have interacted. In India and Africa, the mammoth beast is revered as god, and works as servant. But man initiates the interaction, but man is not invited into the complex social hierarchy of the elephant.