“It was an awful time,” Poole recalled, “because on one side, the elephants learned to trust tourists—generally white people—in cars. From our studies, we know they can smell the difference between whites and local people. They also distinguish us by our languages. They know people who speak Maa, the language of the local Maasai people, may throw spears at them; those who speak English don’t.” However, the tables were turned on the Tanzanian side of the border. There, white people in cars who drove up close to see an elephant might lean out with a camera—or a rifle.
“The elephants didn’t run because they didn’t expect to be shot,” Poole said. Two of the large males she was studying were lost this way to trophy hunters. She and others protested to the Tanzanian government, and these particular hunting blocks were eventually closed.
Poole does not know how the loss of these big males, who’d fathered many calves, affected the other elephants. Female elephants, though, do mourn family members who die, and are especially troubled when the matriarch, their leader, passes. In 2003, for instance, researchers in Kenya’s Samburu National Reserve watched as Eleanor, an elephant family’s matriarch, died from natural causes. When Eleanor fell heavily to the ground, Grace, a matriarch from another family, used her tusks to lift her friend and helped her to her feet. Despite Grace’s efforts, Eleanor died that night. She had a tiny, six-month-old calf who never left her side. In a photograph, the calf stands like a small sentinel beside her mother’s body, while the rest of the family bunches together, grieving.
Researchers have rarely seen similar moments among male elephants, who as adults, live away from the female herds they grew up in, and return only to mate. That behavior led to a “myth that males are far less social than females,” said George Wittemyer, a conservation biologist at Colorado State University in Fort Collins who has studied elephants in Kenya for more than 20 years. His new research contradicts this notion. “Actually, the males are always in groups and have preferences for certain companions. They’re not the loners they’ve been made out to be,” he said.
“The death of a bull will cause less disruption than the death of a family member,” said Iain Douglas-Hamilton, a zoologist who founded the organization Save the Elephants. “If a bull is shot while associating with a family the others will normally run away.” But he noted: “Bulls will defend or help each other sometimes, when one is down.”
From a population standpoint, “older male elephants are very important to the health and genetic vitality of a population,” said Cynthia Moss, who has led the Amboseli Elephant Research Project in Kenya since 1972. While hunters in the past have used the belief that older males are reproductively senile as an argument for killing them for their ivory, research has revealed that they are in fact an elephant population’s primary breeders. “By living to an older age, [older males show that] they have the traits for longevity and good health to pass on to their offspring,” Moss said. “Killing these males compromises the next generation of the population.”