Male Elephants

Posted on 16 September 2015

I am deeply grateful that it was Charles Darwin who largely founded and popularised the study of evolutionary biology. The industrial era has a lot to answer for. Any number of other scientists might have injected British imperial bombast into the incipient field.

Even so we are still laden with Victorian attitudes permeating business, politics, technology, and science. And I mean the attitudes that see educated rich white male humans as the pinnacle of evolution. This is why just because someone is an intellectual does not mean they are on the side of universal human rights and the preservation of the environment.

I bring these points up because even though business, technology, and science largely no longer believe that God gave us nature in order to hold dominion over it, much is made of the distinctions between humans and animals. Until very recently all animals were seen as biological automatons who couldn’t feel pain, but simply gave programmed responses to stimuli. “All” meaning every animal except man. Historical documents abound that describe women, non-Caucasian peoples, the poor, and imprisoned as less than human as well.

As such people like Jane Goodall had an upward battle getting the scientific community to accept their research. To describe any behaviour of great apes that might have a parallel with human behaviour was seen as anthropomorphising. This comes from a perspective that believes humans are utterly distinct from animals. In time researchers, for instance, have been able to prove that chimpanzees laugh. The empathetic structures in our brains were giving us correct information about this behaviour, without it being our own projections.

I’m sure most of us know people who are overly fond of their pets and project all sorts of emotional and intellectual behaviour onto them. However, seeing animals as simple machines that we can use with impunity is no less a projection. In both cases people are wanting something from the animal and therefore choose to see it in a particular light. They may want the animals to help demonstrate human superiority, or alternatively human moral inferiority. They may want to believe an animal understands them, or that it has no understanding and therefore we are free to ignore its suffering.

When doing any sort of research we are going to be limited by our social expectations. We all have to be prepared to change our minds when better information comes to light. If we become bound by the need to bolster our social status, we start losing the capacity to properly observe reality.

One aspect of elephant behaviour I have been reading about concerns musth. Musth occurs in adult male elephants. It is characterized by highly aggressive behavior and accompanied by a large rise in reproductive hormones, but is not in fact a rut. It seems more closely related to establishing dominance than mating. Many documentaries and many pages of books have been written about male elephants fighting for mating rights or going into musth.

Because of Africa’s growing population more and more elephant territory has been taken for farmland. The elephants that have been confined to various parks are at times more than the ecosystem can bear. It is possible to dart elephant cows with hormones to reduce their fertility, but certain nations prefer to cull these animals and turn a profit from the resulting ivory.

Elephants have been proven to have self-awareness like humans, apes, whales, and dolphins. They also have spindle (aka von Economo) neurons. These are the cells that help make us what we consider most human. They give us social sensitivity, self-monitoring (especially emotions), and the capacity to cooperate. Wholesale culls are a very real holocaust for these animals. They suffer, they grieve. They lose the wisdom of their elders. This is especially significant when it comes to young males who reach musth and don’t have an older male elephant around.

Young males without an elder have been known to form gangs and slaughter rhinoceroses and even kill tourists upon occasion. When an elder is brought in, their behaviour is more controlled and they do not slip into this hormonal cycle as frequently.

The Melbourne Zoo has two male elephants that are kept in a paddock together: one is father forty-one year-old Bong Su and the other is his five year-old son Ongard. Asian elephants mature faster than African, and Ongard is almost breeding age. He is already on zoo “dating sites”, since the Melbourne Zoo has no suitable females with whom he can start a family (they are sisters and cousins).

When I was at the zoo this week I watched as Ongard playfully bumped heads with Bong Su. Bong Su affectionately reached out his trunk and caressed Ongard. When his trunk gently brushed Ongard’s cheek, Ongard twined his trunk around Bong Su’s. For several minutes they tenderly held each other’s trunks. Upon disengaging they lightly jostled one another as they walked over and ate some hay together.

We hear a lot about female elephant bonding. Of the numerous books and sites I have read recently, I have seen little mention of male elephant bonding. Clearly it happens. I wonder if our culture is more interested in powerful, dominating, and violent male elephants, and not so much for powerful, caring, and nurturing male elephants. Both seem to be true depictions, but they exist side by side and both need to be recognised. I might be told this only happens in a zoo environment. I do not know. But if they are capable of such behaviour in one place, no doubt they express it in others.

From my research I am coming away with a couple of firm recommendations: we have to start seeing the other animals of this world as our family, not in an anthropomorphic sense but in the sense of empathy and due care; and we need to better understand ourselves and develop our own social and emotional maturity, for only with that maturity will we have the capacity to better understand the family of living beings.

Peace and kindness,

Katherine

Post script: A friend sent me a link to this Smithsonian article, “Elephants Have Male Bonding Rituals, Too“. A few months ago researcher Caitlin O’Connell released a book Elephant Don: The Politics of a Pachyderm Posse with new research about male elephant behaviour. I look forward to reading it!

Bong Su photographed by Fir0002/Flagstaffotos

Bong Su photographed by Fir0002/Flagstaffotos


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