Elephants Teach Socialization

by Deborah Kloeppel [Reprinted with permission]
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"The baby elephants adapted to life without their parents and other family members"

I was watching PBS the other night...at about 3 or 4am, and there was a program on about some elephants in Africa. I thought it was interesting and I wanted to tell you about it.

About 20 years ago there was a large population increase in the elephants in one particular preserve and they were beginning to outgrow their food supply...that is a big problem...anything concerning elephants is big, but they do eat an enormous amount!

The rangers and others, like the government officials and even the preserve veterinarian decided that the most humane thing to do was to kill off the older elephants to preserve the younger generation...and that is what they did!! (I'm horrified here...) They did this because at that time they did not have the means to transport numerous giant elephants and the babies were more "portable." So they went in with helicopters and began killing the adult elephants.

When they were done, they rounded up all of the orphan baby elephants and arranged them into groups of so many males and females per group and sent them off to various other preserves...


The rhinos had been killed by the elephants!

Everything seemed to have worked just fine. The baby elephants adapted to life without their parents and other family members, and there was no more problem with the food supply. Also, since the elephants were all babies and youngsters, they would not begin to reproduce for some time yet and the food supply could replenish itself by the time it would be needed for a new crop of baby elephants. They thought everything had worked according to plan....

Suddenly, however, one preserve began to have a problem! At first they thought it was poachers or disease, but the evidence showed otherwise! The preserves were not strictly for elephants but all native animals. Many of the preserves were trying to boost the numbers of the white rhino. population. They were seeing encouraging results but all of the sudden, rhinos were turning up dead all over the park! They lost 10% of their white rhinos before discovering the culprit. Upon examination the authorities realized that it wasn't poachers. All of the dead rhinos still had their horns! The evidence was almost unbelievable, but it was there. The rhinos had been killed by the elephants!

The first preserve to have this problem was the one that had accepted the group of older baby elephants. Peer groups of 3 were the same, not peer groups of 30 kids the same age that elephants are known to be, these had become mean and nasty!! They had attacked and killed the rhinos and they attacked tourist vehicles that took visitors through the park! They even destroyed park property and attacked workers!

No one could figure out what was wrong with these elephants, but it was clear to the rangers that something had to be done or the white rhino population would again be depleted to dangerously low numbers!


They observed and analyzed the behavior of the group of elephants and compared them to a street gang! Having been cut off from their family and other adult role models they had formed gangs and produced bad behavior!

"Having been cut off from their family and other adult role models they had formed gangs and produced bad behavior"

They didn't have their parents or their elders there to keep them in line or teach them how to behave as they should. And don't forget, these elephants had been traumatized as babies. They had witnessed the violent and defensive actions of their parents and other adults of the herd trying to protect the younger ones and being killed by humans! The trauma and anger that they experienced then had carried over into their adolescence. Left on their own with no adult supervision or family attention, they, in a sense, became embittered and frustrated and took those feelings out on others. Like real gangs, they took their aggressions out on smaller, weaker animals, destroyed things, and caused trouble.

Sadly, a number of these elephants, especially those that served as the "gang leaders", had to be killed because of their dangerous and threatening behavior! Upon examination of the elephants, it was found that they were not only acting this way because of the lack of role models and adult supervision, but many of the males had increased levels of testosterone. They had become sexually active long before elephants that grew up with their family groups, and this increased hormone level increased their aggressive behavior and violence!

The idea of killing all of these "misguided adolescent elephants" was not pleasant, but the rangers didn't know what else to do for them. They had endangered animals in the park being attacked by these out of control elephants, and even human lives in danger! Then someone suggested that if the behavior of these "juvenile delinquent pachyderms" was in part due to the lack of a good role model, them maybe providing them with a good role model would help to reverse the trend.


"Maybe providing them with a good role model would help to reverse the trend."

By now, a means to transport adult elephants had been invented and larger, older bull elephants that had grown up in their family groups were transported to the preserves where the orphaned babies had been sent.

There was an instant change in behavior when the adults arrived! There were no more rhino killings, no more attacks on people, tour groups, or property! Instant "well-behaved elephant teenagers!"

The reason I found this to be so interesting is that it only took these park wardens 20 years to figure out that the baby elephants needed their families and other adults to grow up to be happy, healthy, and well adjusted members of the elephant society. If public schools would apply what was learned in Africa about elephant families to the families in their school districts, just think of the changes there would be!

What if, instead of grouping all of those of the same age together with too few and too poor of quality of role models, all of these youngsters were allowed to remain with and interact with their their families and others in their society, both older and younger? The baby elephants were grouped together by age and then left under the supervision of the park authority...people that were supposed to know what they were doing and what was best for these youngsters...and look what happened! They banded together into rebellious, angry, dangerous gangs that killed other animals, attacked others, destroyed property, and terrorized the parks! Isn't that what is happening in the schools today? All of the children are separated from those of different ages and they don't learn how to interact with society as a whole, yet it is called "socialization".


If the schools hired the African park rangers, there might be some big improvements in the school systems around today!