No one escapes from trauma unaffected. So it should come as no surprise that elephants who lived through a cull of their family group suffer from a range of issues, including violent tendencies, PTSD-like symptoms, and a lack of social cohesion.
Today, wildlife managers in South Africa, where many elephants live, don’t usually cull herds, though the practice isn’t entirely off the books. When elephant numbers grow too high for one park to contain, managers now use other techniques to deal with the matter. But that wasn’t always the case. From the 1960s to the 1990s, culls were routine. In a cull, managers round up an elephant family group on a reserve and shoot the adults. The young, generally between four and ten, were then relocated.
Studies in the 1990s revealed that these transplanted elephants suffered from a range of psychological issues. Now, decades later, they’re finding the cull’s effects still linger. Wildlife biologists tested the response of different elephant herds to calls of unfamiliar elephants. Herd without cull-affected members performed as they should, perking their ears, sniffing the air, and circling to protect the group.
But not elephants at the Pilanesberg reserve, which received many orphans. Here’s Virginia Morell, reporting for Science:
In contrast, the Pilanesberg elephants never seemed to know what to do. “The pattern there was no pattern at all; their reactions were completely random,” McComb says. In one extreme instance, a family left the area at once, traveling more than a kilometer before they came to a halt—but they did so in response to the call of an elephant they all knew. “Yet when they heard the call of the older, strange female, they did nothing at all; they just stayed completely relaxed,” Shannon says.
Experts suspect this societal breakdown isn’t just limited to culls, but hunting and poaching of all types.
To learn more about animal cognition, watch "What Are Animals Thinking?"