Serial Killer Teenage Elephants

Last week was very busy. I want to say I was caught up preparing a class on Orson Welles’ cinema, or writing the next groundbreaking novel on immigrant life in America. But the truth is, I was busy laughing my guts into knots, because my mother had her food stolen by a troop of baboons.

My mother, in happy fulfillment of one of her lifelong dreams, recently went on a safari at the Kruger National Park in South Africa. Being militantly vegetarian, she brought her own food to the guest house where she was staying. The hosts, who have lived there for several decades and are familiar with the wildlife, gave her some very specific and simple instructions on what to do with her food in order to prevent baboons from stealing it. My mother – a wonderful and admirable woman who, like most other people, comes with her own set of wonderful and admirable flaws – promptly ignored every single one of these instructions. And as expected by everyone who wasn’t her, the next morning she woke up to a congress of baboons hanging out by her refrigerator and feasting on her fruit yogurt, looking at her curiously every now and then, possibly wondering why an elegant, grey-haired woman was intruding on their space.

To be fair, she came back with many more stories to tell, about lions and bisons and baby elephants. But believe me, nothing is more interesting than the baboons.

Unless, of course, you’re Boyfriend.

I told him about the baboons through a fit of giggles, expecting incredulous laughter, at the very least. Boyfriend, who was cooking at the time, continued staring into the saucepan with immense concentration. Then, after a few minutes of dedicated stirring, he paused for this:

“Did you know that male, teenage elephants in the African savannah have been attacking and killing rhinos because they don’t have adult male role models to channel their energy into less violent activities?”

Serial killing elephants, 1; food burgling baboons, 0.

"Ok, ok, I get it, big guy. Your story is more interesting than mine. All right? Now calm down already!"

“Ok, ok, I get it, big guy. Your story is more interesting than mine, alright? Now calm down already!” (Image source.)

The first reported incidents of male, teenaged elephants attacking rhinos occurred in the early ’90s. In parks across South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, rhinos were found murdered with unprecedented brutality. Forest rangers, park managers, and ecologists were confused at first, but that was mostly out of disbelief and denial – the dead rhinos had clearly been gored with tusks, and the murderous elephants had left telltale footprints all over the crime scene. (Total rookie mistakes, by the way. Anyone who’s watched even one episode of CSI would know better.) Rangers and ecologists obviously found this difficult to accept, because it meant they would have to find a way of disciplining the elephants. And if that wasn’t possible, they would have to kill them. For anyone who works with these animals in close proximity (or for anyone who cares about wildlife), this is a heartbreaking prospect.

Over the last two decades such incidents have gone up: by 2000, male, teenaged elephants killed about forty white rhinos in South Africa’s Pilanesberg Park alone. In the Hluhluwe-Umofolozi Park a similar demographic of elephants killed about 36 rhinos, including a couple of highly endangered black rhinos. And while white rhinos are technically not endangered, when you consider the casualties against the total number of white rhinos in all of Africa – a mere four thousand at the time – the death toll assumes its full significance.

So why are young male elephants turning into serial killers? Ok, this is the part where this story gets really depressing.

According to ecologists, adult female elephants keep their babies with them for a few years after giving birth. But once male calves have grown up to the point where they are independent – around the age of fifteen – their mothers drive them out to go live with a herd of adult males led by a patriarch. These bulls keep young males under check and curb their aggression, making sure they grow up into caring and sensitive gentlemen.

But over the last two to three decades the stability of elephant communities has been severely violated. The 1989 ban on international ivory trade notwithstanding, elephants are still widely poached for their tusks. Obviously the adults, who have larger, and therefore more profitable tusks, are targeted by poachers. Beyond this, government authorities in countries like South Africa have been forced to cull a large number of adult elephants because their rapidly growing population caused an imbalance in the ecosystem. Both these factors combined have left behind entire generations of orphaned young elephants who have no adults around from whom they can take behavioral cues, or who will give them a sound talking to when hormonal changes prompt waves of aggressiveness to sweep through their bodies. As a result, young, male elephants end up victimizing rhinos, sometimes forcing sexual intercourse on them, and often brutally killing them.

Fortunately, park managers have reacted responsibly to this social crisis among elephants, and are working on solutions other than killing the delinquents. Because elephant populations are still abundant in Africa, parks work with one another to transfer adult male populations to regions where a rise in male juvenile delinquency has been reported. They’ve found that the chastised juveniles almost immediately calm down, give up on violence, and grow up into gentle adults.

Obviously, ignoring the parallels with human society would be like ignoring the elephant in the room. (Ha! Did you see what I did there?) Many rangers and ecologists have talked about this problem in terms of human parents containing the aggression of their teenaged kids. Some have even suggested that elephant brains are very similar to human brains, and the behaviour these delinquents display can be compared to PTSD in humans. I am wary of taking the comparisons too far because it inevitably leads to the idea that only fathers can raise good sons: a simplistic, heteronormative line of thought I’m just not willing to get behind. But I will say this – reading about how young rogue elephants are reformed and reintegrated into their society rather than killed, really warms my heart. I think we might be happier as a species if that could be our general approach to justice in human society too.

Beyond that, elephants are elephants, and humans are humans. You can’t compare the two. One of those species may have some crazy ideas about gender interaction, but it looks out for its kids, and makes sure they grow up with decent manners and a strong, moral core.

The other allows baboons to steal stuff from them.

You're welcome.

You’re welcome.

Want to know more? Go here. And here.

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