Protection of African elephants is a high-profile conservation cause in many countries. However, African elephant populations can be devastated by poaching despite nominal governmental protection, and some nations permit the hunting of elephants for sport. In 2012, The New York Times reported a large upsurge in ivory poaching, with about 70% of the product flowing to China.
Conflicts between elephants and a growing human population are a major issue in elephant conservation. Human encroachment into natural areas where bush elephants occur or their increasing presence in adjacent areas has spurred research into methods of safely driving groups of elephants away from humans. Playback of the recorded sounds of angry honey bees has been found to be remarkably effective at prompting elephants to flee an area.
Most contemporary ethologists view the elephant as one of the world’s most intelligent animals. With a mass of just over 11 lb, an elephant’s brain has more mass than that of any other land animal. Elephants manifest a wide variety of behaviors, including those associated with grief, learning, mimicry, play, altruism, use of tools, compassion, cooperation, self-awareness, memory, and communication. Further, evidence suggests elephants may understand pointing: the ability to nonverbally communicate an object by extending a finger, or equivalent. It is thought they are equal with cetaceans and primates in this regard. It turns out that elephants can identify different sexes, ages and even different ethnicities in human voices, a remarkable talent that underscores the animals’ sensitivity to social cues. They also have remarkable spatial reasoning abilities and are able to craft detailed mental maps that help them navigate their territory. They have been documented traveling hundreds of miles to seek help from places known to help elephants.
Female elephants spend their entire lives in tight-knit matrilineal family groups, some of which are made up of more than ten members, including three pairs of mothers with offspring, and are led by the matriarch which is often the eldest female. She remains leader of the group until death.
The social circle of the female elephant does not necessarily end with the small family unit. In the case of elephants in Amboseli National Park, Kenya, a female’s life involves interaction with other families, clans, and subpopulations. Families may associate and bond with each other, forming what are known as bond groups. These are typically made of two family groups, which may be closely related due to previously being part of the same family group which split after becoming too large for the available resources. During the dry season, elephant families may cluster together and form another level of social organisation known as the clan.
The social life of the adult male is very different. As he matures, a male spends more time at the edge of his group and associates with outside males or even other families. At Amboseli, young males spend over 80% of their time away from their families when they are 14–15. When males permanently leave, they either live alone or with other males.