The Power of Elephant Matriarchs

Among African elephants, surviving threats—from drought and food scarcity to poachers—is a family matter

01-26-2015 // Lesley Evans Ogden

An older female elephant leads her family in Kenya's Amboseli National Park

IT WAS A TYPICAL MORNING in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park, where the 40-odd members of an elephant family were spraying themselves with dust to reflect sunlight and cope with heat. Most of them were becoming restless to make their daily trek to a nearby swamp where they could feed and bathe. But it was a no-go. Their leader, the matriarch, was contentedly feeding on an acacia bush and “she was not going anywhere,” observed researcher Vicki Fishlock. The swamp was slightly more than a mile away, within easy hearing range for the elephants had they chosen to leave without their leader. Instead, they stood and waited for half an hour until she was ready.

In elephant family units, the oldest female leads. “The matriarch has a very strong influence on what everybody else does,” says Fishlock, a resident scientist with the Amboseli Elephant Research Project (AERP), an arm of the conservation-driven Amboseli Trust for Elephants.

Much has been learned over the years about elephant social life, but there are many enigmas left to decipher, especially about how elephant grandes dames rule their world. At the same time, poachers are taking a heavy toll on elephant populations, and the disruptive effects of these losses on elephant society are still being explored.

A Successful Elephant Sanctuary

Amboseli is home to the world’s best-known elephants, which have been studied continuously since 1972, the year AERP was established by Cynthia Moss, a U.S. journalist turned biologist who still heads the group. Every individual in Amboseli’s elephant population is identified by unique ear notches. Fortunately, the park has been spared the widespread devastation that elephant populations have experienced across the rest of Africa. While Kenya’s elephant numbers declined by 85 percent between 1973 and 1989, Amboseli’s population has been growing slowly since 1972, when it was about 585. The park now stands out as one of the few places in Africa where the current population—1,510 animals—includes an entire age range, from newborn calves to many large bulls more than 40 years old and matriarchs in their 60s.

A herd of elephants in Kenya's Amboseli National Park

Amboseli has succeeded as an elephant sanctuary in part because of the poacher-deterring presence of researchers and tourists. Another important factor is the support of local Maasai people. Amboseli’s free-ranging elephants spend about 80 percent of their time on community lands outside of protected areas, so community cooperation and dialogue are essential. The Amboseli trust compensates Maasai for any livestock destroyed by elephants. The trust also maintains daily contact with the Maasai community and employs Maasai as scouts to patrol the ecosystem on foot, looking for injured elephants and signs of poaching and collecting valuable data.

Researchers have learned that the basic family unit within elephant groups is a mother and her young, sometimes accompanied by sisters, aunts and grandmothers. (Males leave their female-led birth groups as teenagers, striking up friendships with other families and other males. Later, when mature, males seek out groups with fertile females for mating.) Ranging in size from two to 50, the family units link elephant societies together.

The animals live in what is known as a fission-fusion society, their affiliations changing with such factors as time of day, season and scarcity of food or water. An adult female might begin the day feeding with a dozen other elephants, coalesce with 25 a few hours later, join 100 in the middle of the day, spend the afternoon with 12 and then settle down for the evening with just her young.

The Benefits of a Matriarch 

Research suggests that matriarch leadership matters most in stressful times. During a 1993 drought in Tanzania’s Tarangire National Park, groups with more experienced matriarchs had higher calf survival, apparently because older females benefit from memories of where to go to find food and water when times are tough.

A matriarch’s experience may also help her group avoid predators. Karen McComb, a biologist at England’s University of Sussex, and her colleagues did field experiments to test the response of elephant families to the recorded roars of lions—an adult elephant’s main nonhuman predators. Female elephants aged 60-plus listened longer to the roars of the more dangerous male lion than to those of a lioness. Older matriarchs also coaxed family members into more frequent and compact protective huddles than did younger ones.

In an experiment testing responses to human voices, McComb found that elephants of all ages could distinguish between Maasai and Kamba ethnic languages. Maasai sometimes spear elephants if they come into conflict with Maasai cattle, whereas Kamba have an agricultural lifestyle that doesn’t pose a direct threat to elephants. Elephant families were much more likely to form defensive huddles to protect themselves and engage in investigative smelling when they heard male Maasai speakers than when they heard male Kamba speakers. McComb also found that families with older matriarchs reacted differently to the voices of Maasai men versus boys, hinting at the advantages of matriarchal age. “Families with older matriarchs are better at social discrimination,” McComb says.

Poaching's Deadly Impact

Such skills may be lost if the resurgence in poaching continues to devastate elephant populations across the African continent. The Wildlife Conservation Society estimates current losses at 96 elephants daily. How loss of matriarchal leaders affects elephant society remains unclear, but research is beginning to solve that mystery, too. Studies in Tanzania’s Mikumi National Park suggest that groups lacking an old matriarch have weaker social bonds and higher stress-hormone levels, which in turn can reduce successful breeding. Some researchers suggest that mass deaths can cause social breakdown, provoking behaviors that resemble human post-traumatic stress disorder.

Nevertheless, Colorado State University’s George Wittemyer, chairman of the scientific board of the private conservation group Save the Elephants, says elephants possess incredible resilience. As with humans, sometimes “you’re dealt a bad hand for whatever reason in life and you’ve got to persevere,” he says. “The [elephants] that we are seeing left as orphans today hopefully will be mothers of a generation that doesn’t experience poaching. If we quit killing them, they’ll be fine.”

But “if” is the big question. Poachers killed an estimated 50,000 elephants in 2013 to fulfill demand for ivory, largely from China—a level of poaching not seen since the 1980s. Experts warn that without urgent action to end the ivory trade, African and Asian elephants may soon be extinct across wide swathes of their range. Amboseli’s safe haven provides a model for what can happen when dedicated researchers, support for conservation and involvement of local people allow the world to share the wonders of living, thriving elephants.


Writer Lesley Evans Ogden is based in Vancouver, British Columbia.

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