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Can elephants experience trauma?

We know elephants are socially intelligent creatures; indeed, this is one of the reasons these animals garner so much respect and admiration. However, being highly social animals can also lead to dangerous, even fatal, consequences if they are deprived of key relationships during early development. In this week’s article, we explore the sad reality of elephant trauma and discuss what humans can do to help provide elephants with a balanced and socially rich environment in which to thrive.

What is trauma?

In human society, psychological trauma can develop as a result of war and socioecological disruptions. Trauma is a complex issue, and this writer would not attempt a definition that captures the full impact of how it affects individuals and societies. However, people who survive experiences that greatly disrupt their social development can go on to show symptoms such as depression, suicide, and behavioural dysfunctions in later life.

The brain behind emotion

Elephants have highly developed brains, possessing structures similar to those of humans. We have already explored the fascinating biology behind elephant brains in a previous article; follow this link if you would like to find out more.

For the sake of this article, we will focus on the elephant’s hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for emotion and memory, particularly spatial memory.

The elephant’s hippocampus is very large and highly convoluted. In humans, the hippocampus takes up 0.5% of the central structure space, while in Risso’s dolphins it’s just 0.1%. Interestingly, in African elephants, the structure makes up 0.7% of the central structures.

Scientists theorise that the highly developed hippocampus could be responsible for elephants’ complex emotional reactions to things, including trauma and PTSD.

The importance of elephant socialisation

African elephants, like humans and cetaceans, live in complex social societies. During their infant years, they are embedded in a highly protective family unit comprising their mother, various allomothers, siblings, and cousins.

Young female elephants will remain with their natal herd, learning from the older females, especially the matriarch—the oldest and largest female elephant. Adolescent males, around the age of 13, will leave their natal herds and join all-male groups where they can observe the actions and behaviors of more mature bulls.

As elephants are long-lived and cognitively advanced, the early formative years, where the elephant is exposed to older role models, are crucial for young elephants to gain knowledge and decision-making skills. By mimicking older elephants, they can gain insights into the environment and how to respond to certain stimuli.

It is when young elephants are deprived of their older role models, due to poaching, culls, or mass deaths, that serious trauma-like symptoms can arise, leading to erratic and abnormal behavior in later life.

The impacts of trauma

Rampant hunting and poaching in Africa have had a terrible impact on elephant populations, reducing them from an estimated 10 million African elephants in the 1900s to just half a million today. This has not only scarred the environment by removing key ecosystem engineers but also left a mark on the minds of the remaining elephants.

Researchers have found wild elephants displaying signs associated with human PTSD, including abnormal startle responses, depression, unpredictable asocial behaviour, and hyper aggression.

A tragic example of elephant trauma causing abnormal hyperaggressive behaviour occurred in South Africa. A group of orphaned male elephants killed 107 rhinoceros over a period of 10 years. The reasoning behind this abnormal, hyperaggressive behaviour was thought to be due to the absence of mature elephants in the early years of the young bulls’ lives.

The affected young bulls, deprived of role models, did not know how to accurately gauge responses to natural stimuli, such as rhinos, which are a common part of their ecosystem. Sadly, this resulted in the deaths of many rhinos, dealing a huge blow to conservation efforts.

The rise in hyper aggression as a result of traumatic poaching events is not uncommon. In another African park heavily impacted by poaching, 90% of male elephant deaths were caused by intraspecific mortality (deaths caused by other elephants), compared to just 6% in unstressed communities.

Additionally, trauma does not just affect male elephants. In a study conducted on Asian elephants, traumatised female elephants were reported to have poorer mothering skills and an increased likelihood of infant rejection.

How can we help?

The most effective solution to reduce the chances of elephant trauma is protection—protection of the wild spaces that elephants inhabit, protection of key individuals such as old bulls and matriarchs, and protection of the important social interactions that young elephants need in early development.

Kenya has made huge strides in protecting elephants and their communities through coordinated efforts between government agencies like the KWS and conservation organisations. However, we all must remain vigilant to the dynamic threat of poaching.

Additionally, there is an emerging threat worrying Kenyan conservation organisations: recent reports of legal trophy hunting taking place in Northern Tanzania, putting the lives of Kenya’s migratory elephant bulls at risk.

Migratory bulls
Elephants can walk up to 200 km in a single day. Many of Amboseli’s elephants migrate into Tanzania where they are at risk of trophy hunting.

Protecting older bulls is crucial, as we know, for young bull elephant social and emotional development. So, coordinated international efforts to protect these bulls are essential to reduce the knock-on effects on populations.

Tsavo Trust’s work

Here in the Tsavo Conservation Area, we aim to protect the growing elephant population. This area holds most of the world’s remaining super tuskers, around 10, with 33 emerging super tuskers.

Part of the strategy for protecting elephants is protecting people, specifically the local communities that call Tsavo Conservation Area home. Fostering community resilience and promoting sustainable development are all strategies to reduce human-wildlife conflict, protecting the lives of both people and elephants and reducing the chances of trauma for all.

If you would like to support Tsavo Trust’s efforts in conservation, please follow this link to learn more.

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