The Troubled Teenage Elephants Who Terrorized Rhinos

Chuck Banner | January 23rd, 2017
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In the wildlife preserves of South Africa, the African elephant and the white rhinoceros normally coexist fairly peacefully. The southern white rhino, a species which is near-endangered mostly due to their being a target for poachers seeking the ivory of their tusks, had been thriving under conservation measures in South Africa’s parks. After nearly going extinct in the 20th century with only 20 total individuals remaining on Earth, the population has drastically rebounded to about 17,000 individuals in the wild since trophy hunting was regulated in 1968. Right now, South Africa holds about 93 percent of the world’s southern white rhinos. But about twenty years ago, biologists at Pilanesberg Game Reserve noticed a strange phenomenon: they found almost 40 rhinos dead, all at once. And it definitely didn’t look like the work of a poacher, because all of the tusks remained intact. So who or what was behind these suspicious killings?

After looking into the situation, biologists realized that a group of male, juvenile elephants was to blame. A few ill-behaved young males had started attacking rhinos out of pure aggression, and eventually more followed suit. They then formed a sort of elephant gang which continued to terrorize and murder rhinos until researchers caught onto what was happening. When they did, they began to investigate by photographing the scenes of the killings and compiling a list of elephant suspects, who were all put on surveillance.

Sure, the elephants were juvenile delinquents, but it turns out that it wasn’t completely their fault. The phenomenon has a clear link back to a wildlife conservation blunder twenty years earlier. Kruger National Park, in the northeastern corner of South Africa, had become grossly overpopulated with elephants. With no way to relocate them, researchers finally decided to kill off the adults and spare the juveniles. But little did they know at the time that killing off all of the mature adult elephants would create an elephant-sized problem: an entire generation of juveniles grew up essentially without parental supervision, and they never learned how to behave properly around others. Another interesting discovery was that all of the troubled males suffered from an excess of testosterone, probably caused by pressure to be sexually active at a young age, since there were no older males higher up on the mating hierarchy to keep them in check.

The solution? Researchers brought in a group of older male, bull elephants (in huge, speciallydesigned trucks) to watch over the teenagers and to keep them in their place. The results were clear: after the bulls arrived, there were no more spontaneous rhino attacks, and even the ringleaders of the “elephant gang” cleaned up his act and stopped harassing rhinos. Looks like the African proverb, “it takes a village to raise a child” definitely holds true where elephants are concerned.

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