Changing Planet

Elephants Struggle to Cope With Poaching of Their Kin, Study Finds


NGS/Michael Nichols

Elephants that survived the trauma of the poaching of their relatives may struggle for decades to build new social relationships, new research suggests.

Some may still be living alone twenty years after losing their families.

“An African elephant never forgets — especially when it comes to the loss of its kin,” according to researchers at the University of Washington. Their findings, published online in the journal Molecular Ecology, reveal that the negative effects of poaching persist for decades after the killing has ended.

“Our study shows that it takes a long time — upwards of 20 years — for a family who has lost its kin to rebuild,” said lead researcher Kathleen Gobush, a research ecologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency and a former doctoral student at the University of Washington Center for Conservation Biology.

elephant-poaching-2.jpgAfrican elephants rely heavily on matriarchs to lead groups and keep families together, according to a news statement issued this week by Molecular Ecology. “Before the 1989 ban on ivory trade, nearly 75 percent of all elephants in Tanzania’s Mikumi National Park were killed. Poachers targeted those with the largest tusks – particularly older matriarchs.”

NGS/Michael Nichols 

Scientists tracked more than 100 groups of elephants surviving in Mikumi, assessing the lasting effects of poaching on group size, relatedness, and social bonding by comparing information about each group with previous reports of protected populations.


“A lot of these females lost their sisters and mothers, and were left living a solitary existence,” said Sam Wasser, director of the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington. “So the question became, what are the long-term impacts on the genetic relatedness of groups?”

NGS/Michael Nichols 

The researchers found that elephants in Mikumi formed unusually small groups, with nearly a third of the females living alone. “Interestingly, some of the elephants chose to forge new bonds with unrelated groups after their own kin had perished,” the news release said.

“When we saw the solitary females, we initially thought that some lucky elephants still had their families, while other elephants had lost it all,” Gobush said. “But we actually saw a flexibility in their behavior. Some elephants were able to find their way and create new bonds with unrelated female elephants, while others did not.”


NGS/Michael Nichols

The researchers say it is unclear how long the effects will persist, especially in light of the recent increase in illegal ivory trade.

“But one thing is certain: Poaching continues to introduce major disruptions in the African elephant’s family tree at a substantial cost,” the researchers said.

“Elephants are very long-lived animals. They are extremely social, and there’s a tremendous amount of group integrity and competitive ability,” Wasser said. “It’s been nearly 20 years since the ivory ban and there are still incredibly persistent impacts of illegal culling on these populations.”


NGS/Michael Nichols

The photos in this entry are of elephants in parts of Africa not related to this research.

Center for Conservation Biology Effects of Poaching on African Elephants (University of Washington)

News story about this research:

Elephants’ Struggle With Poaching Lingers On (Science News)

More NatGeo News Watch entries about elephants:

Elephant Ivory Sales Stir Controversy

Elephants Imprisoned by Roads in Congo River Region, Conservationists Say

Elephants’ Legendary Memories May Be Key to Their Survival

Related stories by National Geographic News:

Elephants Show Special Interest in Their Dead

“Never Forgetting” Helps Elephants Survive, Study Says

Dying Elephant Elicits ”Compassion”

Poaching May Erase Elephants From Chad Wildlife Park

Elephant Slaughter Discovered Along African “Highways of Death”

National Geographic Video: Elephants Mourning

Forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. He has 120,000 followers on social media. David Braun edits the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. Follow David on Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn
  • Marilyn

    My anguish is so overwhelming I cannot even read an entire article, hot tears choke my throat and I wish I never came to be out of the cosmic godless dust. Elephant, if I could save you I would, if I could be the god I don’t believe in, for one day, my wrath would be complete, and you would be avenged. Instead, I die a slow death with you, and the life I live is a mere weak distraction from your suffering.

  • sararooney

    i had seen few cute baby elephants in adorable them.hope the illlega ivory poachers could decrease in the future.

  • Julie Keeney

    So not only are we killing them for no good reason, we are driving the ones that are left into a life of depression and misery. Way to go humanity! Every single day there’s another horribly awful, almost unreadable story. Everybody hates them, everybody is praying for them, and yet we can’t stop it and now it’s almost too late. I’m not sure that normal people can even have the kind of ruthlessness that seems to be necessary in this case. These animals are worth protecting at all costs. And Marilyn, that was quite beautiful.

  • Sarah

    I hate these poachers! Seriously makes me angry and upset for the elephants!
    The poachers must be able to find another way to make money! is this what this poaching is all about, making money because they are poor?? If so why don’t the areas think about creating work for them so they can get money legally without having to kill or torture this beautiful animals! I’ve learnt the ivory is made from the same stuff of our finger nails and hair!! The elephants are similar to us in the social bonding aspect and care so much for their herd…how would the poachers like it if we attacked their family!

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