Elephants are a typical animal - a mammal walking on all 4 legs. A lot of research has now been done on the social lives of elephants in the wild, especially in the Amboseli National Park in Kenya, where there are about 1400 elephants in an area of 8000 square km, in near to natural and undisturbed conditions.
The research began 40 years ago, and the scientists now have long-term information on many of these elephants, which can be recognized by the shape and pattern of their ears.
In general, elephants are matriarchal, but the detailed picture is that they have a fission-fusion society, where an elephant has varied and flexible associations throughout the day – she may start the day feeding with 12 to 15 others, become part of a group of 25 by mid-morning, then 100 at midday, then back to a family of 12 in the afternoon, and then spend the night with just her dependent offspring. Not many other animals have this pattern of living – men and some of the primates being the others that behave like this.
Normally a matriarch leads a group of close relatives, but the social network extends beyond this core unit, to have regular friendly associations of ceremonial greeting and touching with “bond groups” of 70 to 100, and occasional “clan meetings” of hundreds of elephants
It seems that the oldest females have the most knowledge, and provide a valuable leadership role – elephant have to have water every day, and in difficult times, the matriarchs can remember where water and special sources of food can be found. Conversely, if the older females are killed, the younger ones have to step in, and this premature responsibility creates difficulties, and their dung shows traces of stress hormones, and less of their calves survive.
The average life expectancy of a female elephant here at Amboseli is 22 years, so the authors report on Eleanor, who was one of the oldest matriarchs, and nearly 50 when she collapsed and died. Her carcass was visited for a week afterwards by members of her immediate family, but also by elephants from 4 unrelated families – elephants are very curious about death !
Poaching is once again a major problem – things improved with the ban on selling ivory, but now, when a poacher can earn 15 years income from a good pair of ivories, the temptation is too much !
It’s tempting to humanise the elephants, and say that they spend all day going round meeting their friends, but then later they need some time on their own and with the children. However, we don’t really know what they are doing – they seem to communicate a lot, and have different relationships to others, and some have more experience and are in leadership roles, but we don’t even really know HOW they are communicating, though it is clear that they have “friendships” and quite a lot of communication, even at sub-sound frequencies and over long distances.