Echo: An Elephant to Remember
Echo's Family Tree

Highly intelligent, emotional, and expressive animals, it is little surprise that elephants live by social rules that are intricate. So complex and layered are they, that in elephant society males and females live in completely different worlds, with females dwelling in tightly bonded families that stay together for life, and males living a largely solitary existence.

Elephant families like Echo’s EB family are matriarchal societies. Within this structure, the matriarch, or lead female, rules over a multi-generational family of 6 to 12 members, most of which are her offspring, her sisters and their offspring. In Echo’s family, her sister Ella and daughters, Enid and Eliot help her keep the family in order along with her nieces, Emma and Eudora, her granddaughters, Edwina and Eleanor, and great-niece, Elspeth. Sadly, Echo’s daughter Erin was speared by humans and died. A tight-knit family like the EB works very cooperatively. They feed, rest, and move as one unit. Together they defend the family, search for food and care for offspring. Closely-related females will even cross suckle each other’s calves and some females will lactate indefinitely, taking on a wet nurse role in the family. Enid, Echo’s oldest daughter, has a natural mothering instinct and love for calves. She was an allomother, or babysitter, to her younger brother, Ely.

Echo’s Family Tree: Click to view larger. Courtesy of the Amboseli Elephant Research Project
Click here for updated information.

As tight-knit as they are, if an elephant family gets too large, it can split in two. This actually benefits both families as each can forage for resources more effectively if they take on different territories. Typically, such a split would take place between cousins, and usually not sisters or mothers and daughters. These split families, or “bond groups” can average 28 related elephants in 2 to 3 family units. The related groups will continue to associate and occupy the same home range, staying within a mile of each other and keeping in touch through rumbling calls.

Though all members of the family are essential for the group’s success, it is the mighty matriarch who assumes the most critical role. Typically the oldest and largest female member of the family, it is not uncommon for the matriarch to be a close relation to the previous matriarch. To succeed in her role, the matriarch brings years of experience and natural skills at leading her family and keeping all of its members together. She also has a sharpened memory of places and individuals. The adage that an elephant never forgets has some truth to it. An old female can remember where her mother or grandmother took her for water during a drought 30 years earlier, the sort of historical information that can save a herd during hard times.

Matriarchs are charged with making decisions that ensure the family’s safety, health and survival. Tapping into her years of wisdom and experience, she decides when and where to feed, when to move along, when to fight and how. Her influence is so great that if a matriarch is shot by poachers, the herd will likely remain by their fallen leader and be shot as well. In the case of Echo and her famous EB family, Echo’s regularity and as Martyn Colbeck explains, predictability may have saved the lives of the family members. During the 1970s and 1980s, the area outside of the park had a dark history of poaching of elephants traveling in large groups. Echo’s insistence on keeping her family within the range of Amboseli Park kept them safe from poachers. Deferring to the experience of a wiser and older member and forming nearly unbreakable bonds allows for the exchange of critical survival skills to the next generation.

One method elephant society has evolved to keep the family robust and healthy is by forcing out males once they reach puberty-a measure that protects against inbreeding. As they grow older and approach puberty, males, or bulls, grow increasingly independent of their family. They will eventually break off from the group, usually at around 12 years of age. Unlike the highly social females, bulls will live a solitary life, forming relatively few close and long-lasting bonds with other elephants. They travel alone or congregate with a herd of two to 14 bulls, occasionally joining a family on a temporary basis. During the breeding season, bulls wander widely, searching for receptive females. After mating is over, they leave the family and either rejoin a bachelor herd or go back to a life of solitary wandering.

Humans have had a devastating influence on elephant society. As humans kill off vast numbers of elephants and encroach on their habitats, elephants grow increasingly anxious, disoriented and, at times, violent. Since older, larger animals are more likely to be targets for poachers because their tusks are largest-and these are also the members of the family with the most critical role– killing these individuals damages entire family units for years. Due to poaching, the number of older matriarchs and female caregivers has drastically fallen, and some elephant groups contain no adult females whatsoever. The number of elder bulls, who play a significant role in keeping younger males in line, has also fallen. All of this damage within elephant societies leads to incidents of “elephant rage” or attacks on humans and their property. By understanding how killing one elephant reverberates through elephant society, humans may come to realize how great an effect they have on elephants, and on other humans.

Updated information on Echo’s family, can be found at Amboseli Trust for Elephants website.

  • April

    It is tragic that some humans don’t see the similarites we share with these beautiful creatures and cause so much destruction to their families.

  • rheea svolos

    I AM AN ARTIST. LOVE ELEPHANTS. DOING A PAINTING OF ONE NOW. WHERE/HOW CAN I TOUCH AN ELEPHANT?? I WANT TO SEE WHAT IT FEELS LIKE. THANK YOU. rheea

  • Iris M. Gross

    Echo was still giving birth well into her 60s! Now that she has died at age 65, who is raising her 5 year old female calf?

  • Deezo

    Amazing story on Nature. I love these animals and thank you for sharing this.

  • JD Redman

    Did Enid survive the grief of the loss of her mother? Did she lose her calf in the drought? I remember watching Echo from the early 80’s and was saddened by her loss. What an extraordinary gift to have seen her through the years–it is like losing an old friend who comes to visit from time to time, and whose visit will never come again.

  • http://www.missouriwhitetails.com Kirby Leonesio

    What is captcha code?, pls offer me captcha code codes or plugin, Thanks in advance.
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  • La Verne Lindsay

    I have Echo as my home brower page and the PBS story taped on my DVR. I have yet to bring myself to view it because it will be too painful.

    She was an amazing elephant!

  • lonna

    Just watched the Echo video, I hope I caught the whole thing, Loved it, Bless your work. It is not easy but you are doing a wonderful job. Thank all who are involved, I am in Iowa USA but I feel like they are my Elephants too. Thanks

  • Naomi

    I couldn’t help but creak down into tears every time I saw the touching things these creatures do. It’s hard for me to call elephants “animals” now, their personalities are so humane, they are so gentle; complete the opposite of something you would call an “animal.” Echo should be an idol for not only elephants but for people as well. Just imagine how much better our world would be if there were more people like Echo.

    It was absolutely beautiful, and I want to thank every single person that worked with Echo and her family. They are making the world open it’s eyes and realize the true beauty of these elephants. Thank you so much for making the world so much better.

    I love you Echo (and family), you will be in my heart forever.

  • jessy

    who could ever forget echo the most heart touching elephant ever i love you echo il never forget you and your family.

  • Paula

    I just love elephants, i collect them and have a houseful. I enjoy these majestic animals and when I visit a zoo, they will flock to where i am and I somehow i can communicate with them. i cried when I learned about Echo. I envy the lady who works with these animals. It is devastating to the ones who she left behind and to her baby, the sadness thy must feel for Echo. My sympathy and respect goes out to all the elephants in the world.

  • Catherine H

    What an AMAZING family tree!! Echo was such a remarkable woman–just think of the legacy she left her family!~I know she enriched my life in countless ways. Now Echo watches out over her family–what a blessing to have such an outstanding, on so many levels, wonder and force of nature as your guardian angel. Rest In Peace, Echo. May your soul-your profound wisdom, strength of heart and kindness of spirit guide your family now and forever thru the future. I wish I could have met you! People could learn SO MUCH from you. You are without a doubt the finest mother I have ever learned about–and from.

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