When you think about your own life, what matters the most? Your family? friends? teammates? classmates? colleagues? Or perhaps you think in terms of larger groups like your church, your town, your school, your professional relationships? Some might even chose mega-communities such as nationality, religion or tribe. The point is that as humans, much of our world revolves around our key communities. It is how we identify ourselves, how we learn, how we adapt our behaviors. Without our respective communities, who would we be?
Elephants are also creatures of community. They live in herds — extended families — led by a matriarch, usually the oldest and/or wisest female of the group. Baby elephants learn from their mothers and aunts. Young elephants learn social skills from playing with other young elephants. Teenage males play rough with each other, practicing skills they need to be a big, tough bull when they grow up. Teenage females learn maternal skills from observing older females and helping to take care of young elephants. Without their community, they would not survive. Generally, an elephant is “dangerous” to humans only when sensing a threat to his/her community. In other instances, an elephant that has been traumatized may be aggressive towards humans. When a member of the community dies, either from natural causes or killing, the elephants in that community grieve over the loss. Their highly sophisticated social structure is one of the reasons that so many of us are strangely drawn to them. People who have devoted their lives to working with and understanding elephants will tell you that being “connected” to other elephants is the most important factor in their survival.
Echo of the Elephants — The Story of an Elephant Family by Cynthia Moss and Martyn Colbeck is a terrific introduction to how the elephant community works.