Poaching: The devastating consequence on elephant families

By Jemima Frame

Elephants are very intelligent creatures, with experiments showing that, like great apes and humans, elephants are self-aware of themselves as individuals, and are one of the few species that are able to solve a problem using insight. Long term studies have shown that elephants are amongst the top social networkers in the animal kingdom, with their society focused around family. Each family will comprise of the matriarch, her daughters, and their descendants. Males may be included in the family up to the age of fourteen, at which point they then move on to spend time with other young males in different families (Ogden, 2013). Matriarchs are the leaders of the family, and their depth of knowledge is essential for the family’s survival, putting the whole family at risk if the matriarch is killed due to poaching. 

The matriarch is the eldest elephant of the family, generally between forty-five to sixty-five years old, and they are responsible for leading the family and making all the decisions. They have a wide array of knowledge; about the landscape, predators or other threats, as well as other elephant groups. Matriarchs should be able to distinguish contact calls of close friends and related family members from calls of elephants they have no association with. However, it was found that in packs where matriarchs were very young, around 30 years old, they did not have this ability (Morell, 2013). More importantly they were not as skilled as elder matriarchs in deciphering recordings of lion roars, leaving their family open to attack. Older matriarchs are able to decipher lion calls and tell the difference in the number of lions in a pack, for example, they knew when three lions were calling instead of just one and were much more cautious. They were also able to correctly distinguish the difference between a male and a female lion call and therefore focus their defence on male lions. This is an extremely important skill for the matriarch to have as even one male lion alone can kill an elephant calf (Ogden, 2013), thus making it important to have heard its call and prepared the family to defend its young before the lion attacks. 

If a matriarch senses danger, either from hearing a predator call or smelling their scent, she will send a signal to the whole family that causes them to form a tight group that researchers call “bunching”. If she senses a predator (generally a lion) she will either go to the front of the pack and lead her family forward or move to the back to keep her group together. Her aim is to not be ambushed; she either prepares for the attack by bunching her group together or will challenge the lions and chase them away. Failure to prepare for an attack can leave the youngest elephants at risk of being killed, whilst preparing for an attack that is a false alarm results in wasted time and energy for the whole family. A younger, inexperienced matriarch will often make both of these mistakes, and too many bad decisions results in a decrease in her family’s reproductive success. Studies have proved that elephant families with poor leaders have fewer calves, resulting in a decreasing elephant population in the long term (Morell, 2013). This discovery was very important, as it showed that herds run by young matriarchs, an ever more increasing problem due to poaching of elder elephants, put the whole family at risk, resulting in fewer offspring and a higher mortality rate of their young. 

Poaching is a growing issue and continues to cause the decline of many important species including elephants. The population of African elephants has plummeted in the last 40 years from 1.3 million in 1979 to roughly 415,000 currently (WWF, 2020). Many conservationists are extremely worried that elephants could face extinction before the end of this century. Poaching is often aimed at the oldest elephants, due to their increased length of tusk, therefore matriarchs are at higher risk of being killed than younger members of the family. The killing of matriarchs, and the families left to be run by younger, inexperienced matriarchs only hastens this extinction and puts them in greater danger. 


Morell, V. (2013) Animal Wise ; The Thoughts and Emotions of our Fellow Creatures. London, Old Street Publishing.

Ogden, L. E. (2013) Pachyderm politics and the powerful female. New Scientist. 221 (2950), 42-45.

WWF. (2020) Elephants. Available from: https://wwf.panda.org/knowledge_hub/endangered_species/elephants/ [Accessed 8th September 2020]

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