Elephant Behaviour: Getting to know the herd
There are few animals as beloved and revered as the elephant. In African folklore, they are known for their wisdom, might and close-knit family groups. They are path-setters in the savannah, and where elephants tread, the bush yields.
We’ve all heard of the elephant’s exceptional memory, and seen heart-breaking footage of elephant mothers who, years after the passing of a child, visit their bones. They are long-living animals, who, in spite of their size, rarely demonstrate aggression. At Leopard Hills, we have exceptional Big 5 encounters on almost every game drive and your chances of seeing these majestic animals in their natural habitat is excellent.
Here is an introduction into elephant dynamics to enhance your viewing experience from the back of the vehicle.
The Family Group
Depending on the terrain and resources, elephant herds can number up to 100 individuals, but most family groups consist of about 10 individuals. Sometimes these family groups band together, forming a larger clan, but the clans will inevitably split up once a group of more than 20 individuals has banded together. However, the ties remain strong and these family groups will continue to associate closely with one another.
Adult males and females live separately, with bulls opting to roam the bush alone or with a few other males. The large herds we know and see are predominantly female and are known as breeding herds. They are led by a matriarch and consist of her offspring and their respective offspring. When male calves reach maturity, they leave the herd, but female offspring remain with their mothers and bear calves of their own.
The group moves where the matriarch leads. You’ll spot her easily as the largest cow of the herd and they depend on her experience and knowledge of the terrain and various watering holes in the area. Matriarchs walk at the front of the herd and the other large females take up the rear so that the younger members of the herd are safely ensconced in the middle.
Did you know?
Before a young cow has calves of her own, she will act as a protector and mentor to other young calves, often rushing to the calf’s assistance when needed. These young cows are known as “allmothers”.
The close familial ties in a herd means that all members of the herd look out for one another’s young.
Although bulls eventually leave the family group, this only starts to happen when they reach between 12 and 15 years of age. Considering that African elephants can live up to 70 years, this is the age at which they begin to leave adolescence behind. At this age, they may spend up to 50% of their time away from the family group, leaving entirely by about 20.
Bulls are solitary by nature, but may band together in bachelor groups of up to 15 individuals. This, however, is rare.
When a bull elephant is ready to mate, he goes into musth. This happens when a hormone known as temporin is secreted from the temporal glands on either side of his head, signaling a rise of reproductive hormones in the elephant’s body.
During this time, a bull will wander from his home grounds to find a potential mate in a family group far away from his own.
Musth lasts between 2 and 3 months and during this time bulls are considered particularly restless and unpredictable.
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When observing a herd of elephants, it’s clear that they are communicating with one another. In some cases, such as reunions, you’ll see them joyfully trumpeting and flapping their ears, or touching each other with their trunks. The act of touch is a big component of elephant communication.
Elephants can emit sounds that are too low for human ears to pick up on. These subsonic rumbles can travel many kilometres and help elephants to either locate or avoid one another, depending on the relationship they bear with the other group.
Although elephants are peaceful by nature, it’s best to tread carefully when young calves are involved. Bull elephants can also display extreme aggression during musth, due to their elevated testosterone levels.
You’ll have no doubt as to whether an elephant is warning you off. They stand tall, trumpet, flap their ears and mock-charge the object of their ire. They also swish their trunks to demonstrate their power, kicking up dust and lifting their tusks in the air.
Most elephants will conclude their display with a mock-charge, but they do follow through if the threat does not appear to be backing off. An agitated elephant is more than capable of killing another elephant or flipping a vehicle.
Elephants are extremely intelligent and complex animals. A secure elephant is a safe elephant, but they can be dangerous when threatened. Elephants are happiest in their family groups and separating elephants from their loved ones has been known to cause trauma and aggressive behaviour in these animals. Yes, an elephant can suffer from heartbreak and even depression.
At the end of the day, wild creatures are to be respected and appreciated from a safe distance. Our rangers are well-versed in elephant behaviour and have learnt to read the signs when it comes to keeping guests safe on the back of their vehicles. The elephants at Leopard Hills know that a vehicle poses no threat to them, and it is for this reason that many guests have been able to witness these animals at close proximity.
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