African elephants primarily spend their time in family groups, varying in size from 3 to 25 individuals. Composed mainly of closely related female elephants, these groups are led by a dominant matriarch, usually the oldest and most experienced female. The matriarch guides the family to crucial resources, including vegetation, water, and essential mineral deposits.
Seasonal gatherings in Tsavo
Occasionally, different family groups join together to create larger herds, which can further combine with bull elephants to form extensive “clans”. These sizable aggregations may consist of 500 to 1000 individuals and are typically centered around a particularly vital resource.
The photo above captures a herd of several hundred elephants gathering on a relatively open plain in the Tsavo Conservation Area. In the dry season, the elephants spread out across wide areas in their family groups, feeding on shrubs and bark. However, when the rains commence, usually around April but also now in November, there is a rapid growth of grass in the open plains. The large quantities of grass growth attracts huge herds of elephants that prefer this as a food source.
A time to socialise
In our previous article, we explored how African forest elephants in the Congo rainforest use large clearings, known as bais, as social arenas. Similarly, in Tsavo, elephant herds utilize the large grassy plains and abundant vegetation growth for the same purpose. With an abundance of resources, these large “clans” can socialize, exchange crucial information, and potentially find suitable mates. This can be done without competition over food resources as the falling rains have provided plenty.
A 2003 study found that large elephant herds exhibit much higher levels of vocal communication, further enforcing the idea that these gatherings serve as important times for socialization. Researchers have suggested that remote listening systems could potentially serve as valuable tools for collecting information on elephant abundance and population structures. #
Mating rituals and evolutionary advantages
Research have found that the arrival of the rains and the growth of vegetation coincide with many females coming into oestrus. These open clearings then become important mating arenas where female elephants can find a suitable mate.
Additionally, the most physically fit bull elephants in the area have a higher chance of mating with a high number of females. Older bulls use this as an opportunity to exert dominance, find mates, and ensure their genes are passed on to future generations.
For the younger elephants it is an important learning process where they are able to observe the mating rituals of the older more experienced elephants. For young bulls, this could be on how to intimidate rivals, and how to mate with the females. For the young cows they could learn how to avoid unsuitable young bulls and ensure they only mate with the most physically fit elephant.
These congregations, in times of plenty, could, therefore, play a vital role in ensuring most females mate with the most healthy and physically fit bull, providing an evolutionary advantage for elephants as a whole.
Once the rains cease and vegetation resources dwindle, the herds gradually break up into their closely related family groups. They then follow their respective matriarchs in search of food elsewhere.
Concerns of climate change
Current estimates suggest that there are around 415,000 African elephants in the wild. While numbers are increasing in some areas like the Tsavo Conservation Area, they pale in comparison to the historical population, which stood at several hundred million in Africa. These historical numbers hint at the once mind boggling clans that could have formed in the past, and indeed anecdotal evidence suggests that clans of elephants used to gather in their thousands in Tsavo.
It is clear now that the arrival of rain plays a vital role in elephant socialization, mating and therefore evolution. This raises concerns of a changing, less consistent climate which could cause changes to the usual patterns of elephant’s social system. Perhaps, affecting the mating and reproductive behaviour of these elephants.
This highlights that research into these large congregations is crucial for understanding elephant social dynamics, carrying capacity, and aiding conservation efforts.
As we marvel at this massive elephant herd captured in the Tsavo Conservation Area and other regions, it’s essential to recognize the potential evolutionary advantages embedded in these social structures. From reproductive success to maintaining healthy interactions, these gatherings serve as vital components in the complex tapestry of elephant life.
While the current elephant population faces numerous challenges, including habitat loss and human wildlife conflict, understanding the dynamics of these congregations becomes crucial for effective conservation strategies. By delving into their social behaviours, researchers and conservationists can gain insights that contribute to the preservation of these magnificent creatures for future generations. The ongoing research into the history and dynamics of elephant herds provides a valuable window into their past and informs strategies for their protection in the face of contemporary challenges.