An Elephantine Issue
Of moms and babies
A team of researchers studying African savannah (or bush) elephants in Amboseli National Park, at the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro, for over 40 years has published their findings. They say that the kind of care a mother elephant gives its baby in the first two years of its life has lasting consequences on the young one.
If the mother is weak or inexperienced, and cannot care for her calf well, the calf grows up with a disadvantage. This handicap is more in male calves than in females. Why? Males need to be big and strong as they reach adulthood in order to win mates. If a mother has not been able to care for the calf when it was very young, he may grow to be smaller in size and/or weaker. This means his chances of winning a battle for a mate are lesser.
But there is a reprieve. If the mother is inexperienced, but the herd has a strong matriarch or other strong females around that can help raise the calf, there is a chance all will be well.
This finding has far-reaching implications. It brings up a very important aspect of elephant populations: that of herd make-up and individual member health. Imagine a poacher or a hunter taking down an big female elephant. The big elephants have the most beautiful tusks, and are prime targets for ivory poachers. But the big elephants are also the older, wiser, important mentors in a herd.
In a scenario where matriarchs and females are poached, babies are left orphaned and herds lose their biggest and strongest members. Imagine what this does to elephant populations going forward – when only weaker elephants are left.
Similarly, if a forest or grassland that these elephants inhabit is lost, or if there is a drought year where food and water is scarce, elephants carrying babies in them will be malnourished, weaker, and in danger of not being able to look after calves. This leads, in the future, to weak members in the herd.
2012 has proven to be a terrible year for African elephants. Poaching has been rampant. More elephants have been killed for their tusks than ever before. Elephant numbers are dwindling fast. Ivory demand from the far east (China, Thailand, Vietnam) are the prime drivers of ivory poaching.
At the levels poaching has reached in recent times, it may not be long before entire populations of elephants are wiped out from some places. Many organizations like Save the Elephants are working hard to push governments to come down heavily on poachers and protect this charismatic species.
Here is a short video on the African elephants and the threats facing them: