Orphaned elephants change where they live, in response to poaching and the need for food

May 23, 2018, Colorado State University
An elephant matriarch and her daughter help her youngest calf to her feet in the Ewaso N'giro River in Samburu National Reserve, Kenya. Credit: Shifra Goldenberg/ Save the Elephants and Colorado State University

Young elephants who have lost either their mothers or the matriarchs of their herd are affected dramatically, and change where they live, according to new research from Save the Elephants and Colorado State University.

The study, "Inter-generational change in African elephant range use is associated with poaching risk, primary productivity and adult mortality," is published May 23 in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.

By changing home ranges, these survivors alter their exposure to the risk of poaching and can better access green pasture, the study's authors said. This response across generations has important implications for , as the spaces in which they live are increasingly squeezed by swelling human population, farmland and infrastructure.

While most orphaned elephants that the researchers studied expanded their range into novel , others decide to "hunker down," and decreased the area over which they would typically range. One family that is well-known to researchers, the Swahili Ladies, abandoned rangeland that lay southwest of protected areas after poaching removed an entire generation of adults. This group then remained largely within the relatively limited confines of the protected area.

"Our study demonstrates that the loss of a matriarch can lead to dramatic shifts and expansions in the movements of some families, while making others much more faithful to the core of their original home range", said lead author Shifra Goldenberg, a postdoctoral researcher in Colorado State University's Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology, and a scientist with the nonprofit conservation organization Save the Elephants.

The research team analyzed the movements of female elephants from nine different families over a 16-year period and found that nearly all of the elephants, including those that did not experience the loss of their matriarch, shifted ranges over time. When they shifted, they tended to move away from known poaching hotspots, and to areas with easier access to food. But the benefits of these shifts in location—in terms of forage or safety—varied.

"The ability to survive in the face of new human pressures is critical to the persistence of wildlife in the face of human global impacts," said senior author George Wittemyer, associate professor at Colorado State University and chairman of the Scientific Board of Save the Elephants.

"In elephants, we see a general ability to recognize high-risk areas and avoid them," Wittemyer added. "But range changes were exaggerated in families that had lost the mothers and leaders of their groups. The costs and benefits of these different types of responses is important to the population's ability to respond to emerging threats and recover from the effects of poaching elephants for ivory, which has reached the level of a serious crisis."

Explore further: Orphaned elephants' social lives substantially altered by poaching

More information: Shifra Z. Goldenberg et al, Inter-generational change in African elephant range use is associated with poaching risk, primary productivity and adult mortality, Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences (2018). DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2018.0286

Related Stories

Despite poaching, elephants' social networks hold steady

December 17, 2015

While the demand for ivory has put elephants under incredible pressure from poachers, their rich social networks have remained remarkably steady. That's according to evidence on the grouping patterns among adult female elephants ...

Study documents a lost century for forest elephants

August 30, 2016

Because forest elephants are one the slowest reproducing mammals in the world, it will take almost a century for them to recover from the intense poaching they have suffered since 2002. Not only does it take more than two ...

Elephants are changing their behaviour in fear of poachers

September 13, 2017

Research, conducted by Save The Elephants and the University of Twente in partnership with the Kenya Wildlife Service, has discovered that elephants move more at night in areas that suffer high levels of poaching, turning ...

Recommended for you

Meteorite source in asteroid belt not a single debris field

February 17, 2019

A new study published online in Meteoritics and Planetary Science finds that our most common meteorites, those known as L chondrites, come from at least two different debris fields in the asteroid belt. The belt contains ...

Diagnosing 'art acne' in Georgia O'Keeffe's paintings

February 17, 2019

Even Georgia O'Keeffe noticed the pin-sized blisters bubbling on the surface of her paintings. For decades, conservationists and scholars assumed these tiny protrusions were grains of sand, kicked up from the New Mexico desert ...

Archaeologists discover Incan tomb in Peru

February 16, 2019

Peruvian archaeologists discovered an Incan tomb in the north of the country where an elite member of the pre-Columbian empire was buried, one of the investigators announced Friday.

Where is the universe hiding its missing mass?

February 15, 2019

Astronomers have spent decades looking for something that sounds like it would be hard to miss: about a third of the "normal" matter in the Universe. New results from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory may have helped them ...

What rising seas mean for local economies

February 15, 2019

Impacts from climate change are not always easy to see. But for many local businesses in coastal communities across the United States, the evidence is right outside their doors—or in their parking lots.


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.