Photograph by Beverly Joubert, National Geographic Creative
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How orphaned elephants adapt to being motherless could have consequences for how well the species as a whole can recover from the poaching crisis.

Photograph by Beverly Joubert, National Geographic Creative

Elephant orphans face added challenge: bullying

New research finds that poaching harms more than just the elephants who are killed.

Female elephant orphans face a hard-knock life compared to their counterparts with surviving mothers, and that doesn’t bode well for the species’ ability to bounce back from the poaching crisis, which kills some 30,000 elephants each year.

While youngsters whose mothers are killed by poachers may enjoy the protection of relatives, new research published in September in the journal Animal Behavior suggests that it doesn’t make up for the lack of nurturing by biological mothers.

“[Orphans] can adapt socially, but that misses the whole picture,” says Shifra Goldenberg, an international project manager working on elephant conservation at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the lead author of the study. “They might be grouping up with a family, and they might be looking like they’re just doing fine, but it turns out that they may not have the same access to resources that the other elephants have.”

In other words: It takes a lot more effort for an orphaned elephant to grow up when it doesn’t have the loving protection of its biological mother.

“If they don’t have the same resources that other elephants have access to, they might take longer to reproduce,” Goldenberg says. “They might have a harder time surviving illness; they might be more stressed. They might not start having calves at the same age. They might not be able to keep their calves alive if they have calves.”

A “Legacy of Destruction”

The study monitored the behavior of young elephants in northern Kenya around Buffalo Springs National Reserve and Samburu National Reserve. Biologists have studied elephants in this region for decades, so their demographics, movements, and other behaviors were already well understood, making this population ideal to study.

In 2009 poachers began targeting the animals in this area, especially focusing on older females because of their large tusks, according to Goldenberg. “There was this legacy of destruction in the population,” she says.

To understand what effects the loss of mothers has on surviving young, Goldenberg and her coauthor George Wittemyer, both at Colorado State University, set up this study.

They decided to focus on three groups of young females: those that lost their mothers but stayed in their herd, those that lost their mothers and took the unusual step of joining another herd, and those with mothers, for comparison. The researchers watched their behavior, recording friendly situations as well as those in which the other elephants acted aggressively towards the orphans, pushing or chasing them, for example.

The Elephant Whisperers

Hear what it takes to heal a traumatized elephant from the keepers at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, an orphan elephant rescue and rehabilitation center in Nairobi National Park.

Goldenberg and Wittemyer's analysis showed that compared to non-orphans, the orphans faced more aggression during their upbringing. Those orphans that dispersed into a different herd than the one they were born into saw an even higher level of aggression.

Furthermore, while orphaned elephants and elephants with mothers received the same amount of affection from other elephants in the herd, orphaned elephants received less affection overall because they didn't have mothers tending to them. (Read about the warriors in Kenya who raise orphaned elephants.)

Is It All in Their Heads?

Gay Bradshaw, an ecologist, psychologist, and the director of Kerulos Center for Nonviolence, a nonprofit focused on inspiring change in humans that will lead to a better psychological well-being in animals, says that many of these young elephants are also mentally traumatized from losing their mothers and other close matriarchs in their herds. (Read:Orphan Elephants Lack Social Knowledge Key for Survival.”)

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Kenyan wildlife officials destroyed more than 105 tons of ivory in 2016 to send a message to the world that ivory has no value.

Bradshaw criticizes this orphaned elephant study for ignoring the neuropsychology of the elephants. She says that the psychological effects of trauma, which can last for decades according to some research, are pervasive in African elephants herds, affecting both the orphans and the older females, who may have lost family members themselves while young.

“If we are really trying to save elephants, we have to treat them like the populations who are survivors of genocides,” she says. “The collective psyche has started to break down.”

Joyce Poole, the co-founder and co-director of ElephantVoices was not involved with Goldenberg’s research but has studied elephants in Kenya for decades. She says this new research is not surprising and that it adds to the body of evidence that poaching has long-lasting effects.

“The implication is that such higher levels of aggression will be associated with higher levels of stress, which will translate into lower levels of survival,” she says, adding that in populations she has studied, poaching causes physical and psychological scars detectable more than 20 years later.

Goldenberg says that investigating psychological trauma wasn’t in the scope of her study, but the next step would be to determine if the increased aggression the orphans face actually does have consequences for their long-term survival and reproductive success.

“The cost to elephants of mass killing for ivory is not just one of numbers. It is the myriad of consequences to the individual lives of survivors and how these negatively impact the network and functioning of relationships in their society,” Poole says. “Elephants, after all, are a lot like us.”