Friends Help Orphaned Elephants Survive After Their Return to the Wild

Remember this song by the Beatles?

“Oh, I get by with a little help from my friends.”

Photo: YouTube/Sheldrick Trust

It looks like the wisdom in this song is the key to the very survival of orphaned elephants, researchers found out.

According to Jenna Parker, a postdoctoral research fellow with the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance and Colorado State University and lead author of a new study on the impact of poaching on young juvenile orphaned elephants, they have always known that peers matter a lot to elephants, who thrive in complex social structures and nurture strong familial bonds.

And so, it did not surprise them that orphaned elephants in central Kenya have a higher mortality rate than those who still have their mother.

Photo: YouTube/Sheldrick Trust

They decided to study the stress hormones of these particular elephants from their dung, which is a more effective method since it’s non-invasive.

“We expected to see higher levels [of stress hormones] in orphaned elephants,” Parke told the National Geographic, “because until age eight or nine, elephants are rarely more than 10 meters from their mother.”

But, they were surprised by their findings; orphaned elephants who live with peers do not have alarming levels of stress hormones. Parker attributed this to the fact that when a young elephant gets orphaned, it interacts more with other elephants of its age group.

Hence, it affirms Parker’s theory that orphaned elephants have a higher survival chance when they are released with large groups into the wild. Groups with whom they have a relationship, like aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends.

Photo: YouTube/Sheldrick Trust

Parker hopes that a bigger study will be conducted on this kind of approach to ensure the survival of orphaned elephants in the wild.

Kathleen Gobush, a wildlife biologist with the IUCN’s African Elephant Specialist Group agreed that it would be interesting to monitor a group of elephants based on Parker’s theory and to study how the herd deals with heavy stressors like new waves of poaching and intense drought.

The knowledge would surely help in the conservation of savannah elephants, which are now an endangered species, with only 36,000 left in Kenya as of 2021.

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