Within a multi-tiered social network elephants exhibit strong and enduring attachments, some of which last a lifetime. The support and companionship of family members, as well as the formation and maintenance of close relationships, are vital to an elephant’s emotional and social development, well-being and survival.
We psychologically deprive and harm elephants when we separate or kill members of an elephant family or a close social group; our treatment of wild and captive elephants must recognize and protect the integrity of close social relationships.
- Members of an elephant family exhibit a high frequency of association over time, display strongly affiliative behavior, including a pattern of greeting ceremonies, and are highly cooperative in group defence, resource acquisition, offspring care, and decision-making.
- A matriarch, usually the oldest female, leads each family. She determines many of the decisions including daily movements and associations, and crucially she takes decisive action in times of danger.
- Most family members are genetically related, although individuals who, through chance demographic events, have no close relatives within their family still benefit from the same cooperative behavior.
- Families may be as small as a mother with one or two dependent offspring or number as many as 50 individuals. The size and cohesion of families varies depending upon a combination of factors, including the elephant species or sub-species, individual personalities and preferences, the formation and dissolution of individual social bonds, the strength of the matriarch’s leadership, historical events such as deaths of influential individuals, the type of habitat and resource availability, the season and the presence of large predators, including humans.
- Relationships formed within families may last a lifetime; the close and lasting social relationships formed by elephants are remarkable in the context of their fluid social system and persist even with the dispersal of both males and females from their social group of birth.
- Elephants express what we perceive as joy when they are reunited with individuals with whom they have strong bonds; they grieve and may suffer long-term behavioral consequences of trauma when such bonds are broken through death, capture, translocation or separation.
- An intricate medley of visual and tactile gestures and displays, as well as elaborate sounds and scents play an essential role in a broad range of social and reproductive interactions and relationships.
- The probability that a female elephant and her offspring will survive depends upon maintaining strong ties within her social network; the complex emotional and behavioral responses we observe have evolved to cement these critical relationships.