By David Braun
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.
African 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.”
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?”
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. More....