Elephants need their elders
African elephants live in a matriarchal society. A herd is led by the most knowledgeable female, usually the oldest because she's had the longest time to gather vital knowledge such as where to go for food and water and knowledge about how to respond to a variety of dangers, even those that haven't been a threat for decades.
The herd is made up of mothers, sisters, aunts, daughters and sons who stay with the group until they're old enough to become troublesome and need to go hang out with other bachelors. Elephants stay with their herd for life or, if there's a need to leave, they at least stay for more than a decade to learn enough information to survive. This includes social information. This information passed down from elders is vital.
A study shows that when the elders are taken away, this key information is never passed down and those young elephants never learn appropriate responses to elephant calls or perhaps other cues.
Dr. Graeme Shannon played calls to two elephant herds — one affected by culling and one not. The calls were of familiar and unfamiliar elephants. The herd that had not experienced culling reacted normally, bunching together defensively when hearing an unfamiliar elephant and staying relaxed when hearing a familiar voice. But the herd that had experienced culling in the 1970s and 1980s reacted randomly, without any pattern at all.
Research finds that Asian elephants, however, are less hierarchical than their African counterparts. Researchers discovered little dominance based on age or gender when studying Asian elephant groups. This difference in social organization in the two elephant species could be due to the varied habitats. In Africa, conditions are harsher so the wisdom of an older elephant is more valuable and early maternal bonds may explain why female elephants lead the hierarchy. In Asia, predators are few and resources are more plentiful, so there's not as much of a need for strong leadership.
The importance of social life among elephants is backed up by another study, which aimed to understand some of the effects of captivity and the initial results were surprising. Researchers looked at how much space elephants had, but they also took into consideration what they call the "Space Experience," which accounts for the different ways individual elephants see and use the space around them. As reported by the Washington Post:
"...the researchers found that the quality of the space was 'extremely important.' Diverse enrichment activities and feeding methods — such as hanging or hiding food rather than plopping hay on the ground — were more closely linked to signs of positive welfare, particularly reproductive health. Hard floors were linked to musculo-skeletal and foot problems, as well as less lying down among African elephants, which the authors surmised could lead to sleep deprivation."
Cheryl Meehan, a research associate for the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of California at Davis and executive director of the Animal Welfare, Research and Education Institute, was the lead author of the study’s overview, and she said another key finding was the effect of disrupting social groups.
“The physical, actual move can be stressful, but [the researchers] also point to the disruption in social life with respect to social bonds with elephants they were living with and also human caretakers,” she told the Washington Post. “So the social piece is really deeply woven into the question about elephant welfare.”