According to a new study, the oldest male elephants in a patriarchal herd typically take leadership roles when traveling.
Researchers from Exeter University believe that older elephants can help younger, less experienced males find food and water.
In collaboration with Elephants for Africa, the study examined the movements of male African bush elephants – a distinct kind of African savannah elephant – in Botswana’s national park.
Lead author Connie Allen, of the University of Exeter’s Centre for Research in Animal Behaviour, said: “Our results reveal that older male elephants are from a different community in the population, and present concerns over the removal of older bulls which currently happens in both legal hu.n.ting and illegal po.ac.hing.”
“Selective hunting of old bulls is not sustainable, and we argue against it.”
Previous research has shown that the old bulls are the prime breeders, meaning they sire the most offspring in African elephants.
“Our findings suggest that killing them could also have detrimental effects on wider elephant society through loss of leaders who help young, newly independent males navigate in unfamiliar, risky environments,” she added.
Adult male African savannah elephants live in herds led by females, but they leave these between the ages of 10 to 20, and most of their time is spent in all-male groups.
The study divided male elephants into age groups of 10-15, 16-20, 21-25, and 26 and over.
A study found that the probability of elephants at the front of a parade walking increased with age.
Professor Darren Croft, of the University of Exeter, said: “Research on benefits of older individuals in long-lived social mammals has focused mainly on females in matrilineal societies where, for example, older female elephants are most effective at making decisions crucial to herd survival, and old post-reproductive female ki.l.ler whales lead collective movements in h.u.nting grounds.
“In contrast, less is known about the role of older males as leaders in long-lived social species.
“Our study suggests that bull elephants occupy a similar leadership role in male elephant society as old female matriarchs in breeding herds – and so they may require equal protection.”
Poaching, hunting, and human/elephant conflict are the main causes of de.a.th among mature elephants. Their numbers are also declining.
They are usually targeted by trophy hunters because they have larger tusks, and hu.nti.ng operators often implement minimum age requirements or regulations.
“The intricacies of elephant societies are typically ignored when management and Conservation decisions are made, with the underlying thought that these individuals leave their herd to be solitary and independent.
“This study furthers our understanding of male elephants and the importance of older bulls, enabling more sustainable management decisions for both male and female elephants to be made.”