Sunday, March 23, 2014

Teenage Youth: Elephant and Human Parallels

Teenagers rebel against parental controls, right?

Well, most in human societies they do, to some extent at least. It is all a matter of degree.  At the mildest end of the scale they may stay out a tad later than an imposed curfew time or chitchat, text or tweet about parents.  I grew a beard. It did not last long because it was truly an eyesore, tricoloured (red, white and brown) and straggly.

At the other end of the scale things can get pretty ugly. Gang warfare, extreme violence, even murder.

A report in the Los Angeles Times of Dec 16 last year, passed on to me by my daughter, who has a teenager of her own, made me dive into my memory banks as she reminded me of its parallel to things I had witnessed in elephant society.

It was titled Michigan study: Fewer men around? Expect more youth violence. Of course I had a look at the links and was struck by the fact that the author’s name was Daniel Kruger. He was quoted by the Times as follows:

A new study that zeroed in on a single city in Michigan found that where men are scarce, youth were more likely to commit assaults.

“Male scarcity is actually a driver of conditions,"... "It’s the most powerful predictor.”

Dr. Kruger is a research assistant professor at the University of Michigan and one of the authors of the study, originally published in the Journal of Community Psychology. Other media outlets picked up the story and there are similar studies reported elsewhere.

None of these studies picked up on the great similarity they have to events in elephant society that I first learned about in South Africa in 1997. I was with my wife on a study leave from the Western College of Veterinary Medicine  and by sheer chance, or maybe an alignment of the planets we were visiting a former student and friend, Bob Keffen. Bob had been determined to work as a wildlife vet in Africa even before he graduated. He had had to settle for a job as a park ranger and was employed in Pilansberg NP. He managed to wangle an invitation for me to sit in on a meeting about a major elephant problem.

The problem was all to do with teenage elephants and the lack of big bulls in the population (sounds like Dr. Kruger's study in Michigan).

In the 1970s and 80s elephant numbers had grown out of proportion to the capacity of the Kruger NP, South Africa’s largest, to feed them and the park’s vegetation was taking a hammering. 

A cull, this one in Rwanda in 1975. The young went to the Akagera NP
It was thought that a humane way of dealing with problem in park was to cull adults, capture juveniles and transfer them to other locations. 

 Pilansberg had been one such destination and several young elephants, all under the age of ten, had been shipped there. At first all seemed well and of course the new animals drew plenty of tourists. It was not only the elephants that were new. Plenty of rhino, mostly white rhino, had been taken there as well.

The elephants grew up, but of course had no parental guidance and a complete loss of social and family history.

Such history is vital to elephant society and it comes as no surprise, after the work of Joyce Poole and others like Cynthia Moss, that events in Pilansberg did not follow the normal path.

Male elephants reach sexual maturity at about age 17 but get little chance to breed until they are much older. Their most aggressive activities take place during musth, when testosterone levels go sky high and various externally visible changes rake place. Secretions from the pre-orbital gland drip down the side of their faces and a green secretion drips from the penile sheath. Before she had worked out what was happening Dr. Poole had even called it “Green Penis Syndrome.”  

In a moving speech at the 22nd AnnualElephant Managers Workshop Dr. Poole said Young males coming into musth for the first time… are unsure of their new selves, apparent slaves to their raging hormones.

In “normal” elephant society mature bulls, that can detect the smell of a female in heat from up to 10 km away, will quickly suppress any musth tendencies in these teenagers. Dr. Poole saw this happen as quickly as twenty minutes after an encounter.  

In Pilansberg there were no big bulls to control the youngsters, and the females had no chance of doing so, not even if they formed coalition groups and talked to one another in their subsonic language.  By their late teens the bulls were larger and heavier than any female, even the few rescued from circuses that had arrived as adults.

In the early 90s some strange things began to happen. White rhinos were found dead, and without doubt elephants had attacked many of them.   

A rhino that survived attack, but has a serious hole in his shoulder
Trampling around the kill site, footprints and most compelling of all, large holes in the sides of the rhinos that can only have been created by tusks.

Then the evidence chain became absolutely certain when rangers in helicopters saw single male elephants chasing rhinos. There is even photographic evidence of one such encounter. An unnamed tour bus operator watched as an elephant encountered a rhino and attacked it. 

Into the river
First encounter
In this series of photos to you can see the attack and its outcome, which had a happier ending than many as the rhino escaped. 
Unwilling partner. Escape maybe?
Made it! Not all were so lucky
The photos were shared with me by one of Bob Keffen’s ranger colleagues, Gus Van Dyk. The quality is not great, but they were taken with a small camera and then I got copies of what were probably already copies.

In all, during the period 1992-96 some 49 rhino deaths could be attributed to elephant aggression. When known culprits were identified they were shot, and periods of lull in rhino deaths followed.

Of course this does not answer the question of why? Why rhinos? One can only speculate, but one possible explanation is that the young males, like young males of many species, were going through puberty, or had just gone through it, and were looking for some sex. The only thing they recognized as being about the right size and that were standing around were the rhino. On top of that the Joyce Poole phrase about them being apparent slaves to their raging hormones during musth may have played a role.

In human terms there was one terrible ending when a musth elephant attacked a parked vehicle and the family’s father was killed. Two male elephants were culled after that incident. You can read many more details here in an article published in 2001 in the South African wildlife journal Koedoe.

My participation in the meeting with Dr. Poole, Bob and other park staff was minimal, although one ranger did ask about the possibility of elephant castration. On this subject I was able to tell them that the process took a long time and was quite complicated because an elephant’s testes lie inside the abdomen, close to the kidneys and are difficult to reach because of the animal’s sheer size. As far as I know the first such surgery was performed by my friend and colleague Dr. Murray Fowler  and took about three hours. Everyone at the table realized at once that this was not an option in Pilansberg.

It was very soon obvious that Joyce Poole had the solution. She urged the park authorities to bring in a few mature bulls, that she called “super bulls” to suppress the juveniles quickly and create a more normal breeding environment for the entire elephant and rhino societies. The obvious place to source them was the Kruger NP.

Elephant boma with lots of power
It was also obvious that she had made this suggestion quite some time ahead of the meeting because after lunch we were taken out to see the newly built pen into which these super bulls would be placed. It was tiny, perhaps only 40 metres on a side, but fully rigged with several high voltage lines, each on a different circuit. As Gus explained, “we have to teach them to respect fences, which they have never had to do in the Kruger.”

"Super bulls" solved the problem, but created some new ones.
Bob later told me that the results were a resounding success, with one interesting wrinkle. The big bulls soon changed the vegetation in the park as they knocked down and ripped up trees.

I wonder how many readers of this post have spotted the odd coincidence of the name of the park in Africa where the elephants were sourced and the name of the lead author of the report about the human youth problems in Michigan. Both are Kruger.