The famous Venus of Hohle Fels figurine (pictureed), carved from mammoth tusk between 35,000 and 40,000 years ago, is one of the earliest signs of humanity’s fascination with ivory. With its beautiful colour, satiny surface, and ability to be carved into exquisite decorative items, ivory quickly became a treasured symbol of wealth and power. Historically, African elephant tusks were the most sought after, as they comprise the largest and softest ivory in the world and can weigh up to 70kgs. The price of such beauty was steep: global demand, coupled with expanding economies and the availability of powerful weaponry, resulted in steadily falling elephant numbers over the centuries.
The plight of elephants began attracting attention in the 20th century. European settlers blamed African hunters for the decline, despite the fact that colonial governments derived significant revenue from the trade in elephant ivory. Africans and Europeans both hunted wildlife – and Europeans often hunted extensively with devastating effects – yet colonial law did not treat both types of hunter equally. Hunting by indigenous communities was deemed illegal and labelled as ‘poaching’ by colonial authorities, whereas hunting by Europeans was said to be done ‘for sport,’ much like today’s trophy hunting.
By the mid to late 20th century, the situation had descended into a crisis. Nearly half the total elephant population was lost between 1979 and 1989, plummeting from 1.3 million to just 600,000. Today, elephant numbers are at a historical low of 415,000, and hunting – both illegal poaching and legal trophy hunting – continue.
Although the numbers are concerning, they tell just one part of the story. There are lesser-known knock-on effects of elephant hunting that also warrant attention: the long-lasting consequences of elephant hunting on the survivors.
Elephants are intelligent, socially complex mammals, and their society relies heavily on those most vulnerable to hunting – its oldest individuals. Older elephants are disproportionately targeted by hunters as they have the largest body size and longest tusks, yet the loss of these elders can be devastating, destabilising herds and elephant society for decades.
Females live in tight-knit family groups presided over by a matriarch, who is usually the eldest female in the group. Older matriarchs, with their decades of experience, contain stores of social and environmental knowledge that can benefit the entire herd. In times of drought, they use past experience to guide their family to sources of food and water. They know how to best respond to unfamiliar elephants or predatory threats to protect their families. They also ‘grandmother’ calves – protecting and caring for them – which increases their chances of surviving infancy. Long-term data from Born Free’s partner, Amboseli Trust for Elephants, shows that families with older matriarchs flourish: they are larger and more successful, and every female in the group reproduces at a faster rate. The entire herd benefits from the presence of older matriarchs, and the entire herd suffers in their absence.
Male elephants leave the matriarchal herd upon reaching adolescence, either roaming on their own or joining all-male ‘bachelor’ herds. They’re not the loners they’re often made out to be; they do interact and form bonds with other males, and they, too, depend on older individuals. Like matriarchs, older males provide crucial social knowledge for adolescents as they enter bull society. They also play a unique role in the stability of bull society by controlling adolescent musth males and aberrant and discourteous behaviour.
Musth is a state of heightened sexual and aggressive activity in male elephants, normally occurring for the first time when they are 25-30 years old. Older bulls tame this surge of testosterone in younger males; without them, adolescents may go into the dangerous state of premature musth. A famous example of this occurred in South Africa in the 1980s, when young orphaned elephants – survivors of the infamous Kruger Park culls – were introduced to Pilanesberg, an area with no older males. These adolescents entered musth nearly 10 years early and began attacking and killing white rhinoceros. Horrified conservationists soon introduced several older elephants from Kruger Park. Their arrival suppressed the adolescents’ premature musth, and the killings of white rhinos immediately stopped.
The selective removal of older individuals from elephant society via hunting has long-lasting and severe consequences beyond just population numbers; it tears away at the fabric of elephant society, affecting herds for decades. Those left behind also undoubtedly endure psychological and emotional suffering. Elephants are known to suffer from a condition like post-traumatic stress disorder after tragedy, such as witnessing family members being killed. They’re also known to mourn the death of family members, attempting to lift the deceased with their tusks, and often returning for years afterwards to gently touch the bones with their trunks.
Born Free opposes all forms of elephant hunting both on ethical grounds and due to these far-reaching consequences that we are only just beginning to understand.