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The importance of elephant matriarchs

Elephants are highly social animals and, much like humans, they often look to strong, wise, and charismatic leaders to guide them. In elephant family groups, this role is filled by the matriarch. Usually the oldest and largest female elephant, she bears the weight of making critical decisions, from determining when and where to move to how to react to potential dangers.

Elephant social structures

Elephants live in a fluid fission-fusion society, which describes a society where group size and composition evolve as they navigate different environments. Although elephants can sometimes congregate in large herds, usually when resources are abundant, as seen in the photo below, the most stable social structure for elephants is typically the family group.

The family group can be between 3 and 25 members and consists of one or more related adult females and their immature offspring. This group will feed, rest, and move in a coordinated manner. It is within these family groups that the matriarch will take on the crucial leadership role.

NOVEMBER 2023 Tsavo Trust Monthly Report 2
Hundreds of elephants gather together after rainfall in Tsavo

What is an elephant matriarch?

A matriarch in human society is defined as an “older woman who is powerful within a family or organization,” and this definition is equally sufficient for elephants. The core elephant family group will often be led by an older, more knowledgeable female elephant. The matriarch will decide which direction to go, where to feed, and how to respond to potential threats.

The longest running study on elephant populations takes place in Amboseli National Park, where a population of around 1500 elephants have been carefully studied over a period of 52 years.

Dr Vicki Fishlock, one of the leading researchers on this project, has dedicated herself to studying elephant leadership and social dynamics.

“Good matriarch decisions balance the needs of the group, avoiding unnecessary travel while remembering when and where good resources are available,” Fishlock says.

Safari Guide Tips: When observing elephant family groups on safari, you’ll notice they closely follow the matriarch’s lead, pausing to feed when she does and resuming their journey when she moves on.

Survival benefits of experienced matriarchs

Having an older, more experienced matriarch leading the family group can give elephants a strong survival advantage. The studies in Amboseli National Park have revealed that family groups with older, larger matriarchs roam across larger areas in times of drought. This is due to the older female’s knowledge of alternative areas with food and water.

This idea is supported by a study conducted in Tarangire National Park, Tanzania. In 1993, the area experienced a serious drought lasting nine months. The lack of rainfall caused a significant increase in elephant infant mortality, rising from an annual average of 2% to 20%. Researchers discovered that elephant family groups that migrated out of the park were less likely to experience infant mortality. These groups were also more likely to be led by older matriarchs.

This showed that having a group led by an older matriarch with more knowledge on alternative food and water sources gives the group as a whole a stronger survival chance.

Matriarchs and their reactions to predators

Elephant’s do not have many natural predators, however one animal that can pose a threat, particularly to young elephants, is the lion, specifically male lions. As male lions are 50% larger than their female counterparts, they can contribute significantly to the hunting success of larger game, such as buffalo and small elephants.

Why Do Tsavo Lions Have No Manes 1
A male maneless lion of Tsavo Conservation Area. 

A study by Karen McComb on Amboseli elephants aimed to investigate how different matriarchs would respond to potential threats, particularly the calls of male and female lions.

The study played recordings of lion roars to various elephant families led by matriarchs of different ages. The research revealed that older matriarchs listened longer to roars from male lions compared to younger matriarchs, who responded similarly to both female and male lion roars.

McComb concluded that this difference in response was due to the older matriarchs recognizing male lions as greater threats than female lions. In contrast, younger, less experienced matriarchs lacked the ecological knowledge to identify the significant increase in threat posed by male lions.

The results highlighted that elephant family groups would derive significant survival benefits from having older, more experienced matriarchs.

Africa’s most iconic matriarch

For many years the Tsavo Conservation Area  was home to perhaps the world’s most iconic elephant matriarch, Dida. Thought to have been Africa’s largest female tusker, Dida was rightfully named the “Queen of Tsavo”.

Dida sadly passed away, from natural causes, between the ages of 60-65.  Over the years she had gathered an immense treasure trove of knowledge and led and protected her family group through many seasons and challenging times.

Elephant Matriarch
Dida and her family group

Not only did Dida attract many tourists to come see her hugely impressive tusks, she would have passed on immense amounts of knowledge and, hopefully, important genes to her offspring, becoming a keystone in the survival of the dying breed of super tusker elephants left in this world.

Matriarchs hold a pivotal role in elephant society, guiding their family groups to vital resources and shaping their responses to potential threats. A matriarch’s ability to make sound decisions, especially during stressful times, significantly enhances the group’s chances of survival. This underscores the importance of protecting elephants from poaching, as the loss of influential and knowledgeable matriarchs can have profound ripple effects on the entire herd.

If you’re interested in supporting Tsavo Trust’s initiatives to safeguard elephants—allowing iconic matriarchs like Dida to thrive and pass down invaluable knowledge and genetics to future generations—please follow this link.

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