June 2018

Charter for Elephants

Press secretary at Animat Habitat.

From The Elephant Charter—from Joyce Poole and Petter Granli of Elephant Voices partnered with key elephant social behavior experts, and from a growing conviction held by elephant biologists that elephants are deserving of some form of Bill of Rights. Authors Joyce Poole, Cynthia Moss, Raman Sukumar, Andrea Turkalo and Katy Payne, together with other scientists and researchers, have contributed their time, expertise and support to further development of the document.

This article shares a collection of principles for elephant conservation. These principles are, in large part, taken verbatim from The Elephant Charter, including direct links to further principles from its official online publication. The official website makes The Elephant Charter available in many languages, including French and Afrikaans. So, here is a history of elephants presented with principles and evidence from elephant social behaviour experts, elephant biologists and other scientists and so on.

I: Conservation of Elephants

The survival and well-being of elephants is threatened by escalating poaching for the commercial trade in ivory and meat, by the increasing loss and fragmentation of natural habitats, and by locally increasing conflict with humans over diminishing resources. These threats are fuelled by a growing market for ivory in Asia, by poverty and civil unrest, and exacerbated by misguided public policy.

  • Since the origin of elephants on Earth, about 60 million years ago, the order Proboscidea has consisted of approximately 10 families, 45 genera and 185 species and subspecies, in an extraordinary array of forms. The African and Asian elephants existing today are the sole remnants of that spectacular extension.
  • Recent classification recognizes three contemporary elephant species: Asian elephants—Elephas maximus, African savannah elephants—Loxodonta africana, and African forest elephants—Loxodonta cyclotis, however not all scientists agree on this taxonomy.
  • The remaining elephant populations represent a tiny fraction of their former numbers, inhabiting only a small portion of their previous range. Their distribution is highly fragmented. In many areas, particularly in Asia and in Central and West Africa, elephant populations have already gone extinct or are highly endangered.
  • Fuelled by poverty, political instability, civil unrest and the demand for luxury consumption of ivory products, elephants in their natural habitats are threatened by poaching for the commercial ivory and game meat trade.
  • Poaching has caused enormous losses to the species as well as suffering to individuals, fragmenting populations and destroying families. Among Asian elephants, where only a small percentage of males have tusks, even sub-adult and juvenile male tuskers are targeted causing trauma to elephant families. In African elephants, where the tusks of males average seven times the weight of female tusks, poaching is focused on males, though in heavily poached populations females and even sub-adults are killed for their tusks, disrupting families. Older elephants are prized for their heavier tusks. The removal of older males impacts sexual selection, while the removal of older females impoverishes social and ecological knowledge, thereby reducing individual reproductive success and survival.
  • Compliance with international treaties and enforcement of national laws and regulations are essential to the control of illegal movement and trade in ivory and other elephant products.
  • Rapidly growing human populations, rising levels of human consumption of natural resources and ongoing destruction and fragmentation of traditional elephant habitat are the source of conflict between elephants and people.

Close evidence: Conservation of Elephants.

II: Co-existence with Elephants

Rapidly expanding human populations, increasing levels of human consumption, and the technologically enabled incursion of human activities into areas previously remote or uninhabited by people are all causing the depletion and fragmentation of traditional elephant habitat, conflict and loss of life.

  • The conflict between humans and elephants has two sides. Humans face senseless suffering, loss of life and property and elephants suffer injuries and mortalities which impact the fabric of their societies. Promoting co-existence requires understanding the needs and perspectives of both people and elephants.
  • The root causes of the conflict are poor land use, driven by increasing human populations and unsustainable consumption of natural resources, resulting in fragmentation of habitat, as well as the cultivation of crops attractive to elephants adjacent to their natural habitats.
  • The management of conflict between humans and elephants has tended to focus on mitigating its symptoms, through barriers, deterrents and early warning systems, rather than eliminating or managing its ultimate causes.
  • The development and implementation of sensible land use planning that takes account of the collective needs of people and elephants is essential to reducing and preempting long-term conflict and promoting peaceful co-existence. Some forms of land use are less compatible with the presence of elephants than others. In some areas elephants may have to be removed, in other areas people may have to be moved.
  • Continued destruction of forests, haphazard settlement and construction of roads and railways in elephant habitat, and the indiscriminate use and depletion of natural water sources are fragmenting elephant range further and leading to increased conflict.

Close evidence: Co-existence of People and Elephants.

Additional evidence: Management and Welfare of Elephants, Management and Welfare of Elephants Held Captive.

III: Space for Elephants

Elephants are intelligent and vigorous creatures that have evolved in an extensive and complex physical and social environment. Adapted to vast areas, the continuous larger and smaller scale movements related to the search for food, water, companions and mates are essential for elephant well-being.

Evidence: Need for Space.

  • Over the course of 60 million years the proboscids as a taxonomic group have generally evolved to become very large, though the reverse process of dwarfing has also occurred when they have been confined to islands. Elephants are the biggest of the earth’s extant land mammals and require large quantities of food and water to survive.
  • To meet the energetic requirements associated with large body size the elephants have evolved with unique physical and behavioral traits to travel and search over great distances to locate widely dispersed food, water and mates. Adaptations include a highly mobile trunk, a pharyngeal pouch, pillar-like legs and cushioned feet, production and detection of powerful low-frequency sounds that travel acoustically and seismically, acute sense of small and long-term spatial and social memory.
  • Elephants are among a very few mammal species whose evolution includes the continuation of physical growth long after sexual maturation and even into late maturity.
  • Sexual dimorphism in body size is pronounced in elephants. Fully-grown male elephants are on average up to 30 per cent taller and up to double the weight of fully-grown female elephants resulting in distinct differences in energetic requirements between males and females. Elephants have solved this dimorphic dilemma by the partial segregation of male and female societies and the utilization of different habitats.
  • Free-living elephants are on the move for about twenty hours of the day, actively engaged in foraging, exploring, socializing and searching for conspecifics. Activity budgets and patterns vary according to age, sex, reproductive states, season and habitat. In their natural habitat they spend the majority of their time (>85%) engaged in active physical pursuits (feeding, moving while feeding, walking, interacting, comfort activities, drinking) and very little time (<15%)standing in one place or resting. Adult elephants usually rest standing up during the day, but at night they usually rest lying down for a couple of hours and elephants in their natural habitat usually walk between five and 20 km per day.
  • Elephant home ranges vary from 100 sq km to 11,000 sq km. Smaller elephant home ranges are generally associated with habitats of high resource availability, though this may also reflect geographical confinement.
  • Even within a single habitat and population, home range size varies considerably from individual to individual, reflecting personal and family preferences, historical patterns, seasonal variation, and social relationships.
  • In the wild, elephants are vigorous animals, perpetually active in mind and body. Everything an elephant does is an intellectual challenge: locating and manipulating a wide variety of food items; discriminating between the individual scents, voices and appearances of familiar and unfamiliar individuals, including friends and foes, relatives and non-relatives, higher ranking and lower ranking competitors, friendly and unfriendly heterospecifics; remembering the location of water during a drought; searching for potential mates; deciding where to go, who to go with, who to join and who to avoid. The overall lack of biologically relevant mental stimulation and physical activity is a source of suffering in captive elephants.

Close evidence: Need for Space.

IV: Ecosystem of Elephants

Elephants interact in dramatic and complex ways with whole landscapes and ecosystems. Confinement of elephants may have multifaceted environmental consequences for both elephants and the species with which they share their natural space. Equally, their removal from ecosystems can have multifaceted environmental consequences.

  • Elephants live, or have lived, in virtually every habitat type on the African and Asian continents ranging from sea level to 3000 metres—from sub-deserts to swamps, lowland rainforests, gallery and montane forests, upland moors, floodplains, savannas, and various types of woodlands.
  • Shade, cover for protection, and water availability, can have important impacts on elephant movements and distribution.
  • Preferred elephant habitat provides for browsing, grazing, and access to water, but in rare cases elephants have adapted to desert conditions, where they cope with seasonally scarce vegetation and water by utilizing vast home ranges (up to 11 000 sq km) including seasonal migrations up to 650 km.
  • Several anatomical, physiological and behavioral adaptations allow elephants to survive very harsh environments, including the ability to go without water for several days and the ability to cool their bodies by placing the trunk into the pharyngeal pouch at the back of the throat, extracting water therein and spraying it over the back, under-body and ears.
  • Elephants tend to be found at higher densities in mixed woodlands, with year round grass and browse, and are at lower densities in dense moist forest and open grasslands. They are least common at high altitudes and in hot deserts, where access to water is limited.
  • Elephants can exploit fruits and herbaceous and woody vegetation. They may switch seasonally between grass-dominated or browse-dominated diets, and seasonal movement patterns through different habitats reflect attempts to achieve the most nutritious diets in any given time or place. While they do well on an entirely browse diet or a mixed browse and grass diet, no elephant population has been observed to thrive on an entirely grass diet.
  • Due to their large size and digestive system specialized for rapid throughput of coarse vegetation, elephants are adapted to a lifetime of foraging. Feeding for 60-70 per cent of a 24-hour day, they consume 150-450 kilograms, or six to eight per cent of their body weight. An adult elephant must drink an average of 100-160 litres per day.
  • In the past, the elephant-habitat relationship in drier regions was probably spatially dynamic, influenced by climatic variation and succession patterns that involved other herbivores and, quite possibly, Pleistocene hunter-gatherers, and in more recent millennia, modern humans. In moist forest there was possibly greater stability in this interaction.
  • Elephants interact in complex ways with whole landscapes and ecosystems. They have been referred to as a “keystone species” in reference to the important role they play in shaping the structure and functioning of plant and animal communities. Vegetation change caused by elephants, often in combination with other ecological drivers such as fire or water table variation, is a normal activity and can contribute to positive changes in habitat diversity and biomass turnover. However, since mobility and dispersal are important factors in the natural self regulation of elephant populations, the confinement and concentration of elephants in small or fenced ranges can lead to elevated densities, with changes in the landscape that can reduce local species diversity.
  • In protected areas, locally high abundance of elephants may occur when there is human disturbance – to which elephants are keenly sensitive – or blockage of movement patterns. As noted, artificially confined elephants may cause dramatic changes in habitats, and it has been argued that such populations must be reduced or limited. Blocking dispersal reduces the options for management to interventive methods including translocation, contraception and culling, all of which pose ethical dilemmas.

Close evidence: Ecosystem Integrity.

V: Society of Elephants

Elephants’ natural social relationships extend from the mother-offspring bond, through extended family, bond group, clan, population, and beyond to strangers. Their social network is unusually large and complex compared to most terrestrial mammals. Elephants have evolved with physical and behavioral traits and mental and emotional capacities for thriving in a rich social world.

  • Elephants live in an extensive social network, with relationships extending from the mother-offspring bond through members of a family, bond group, clan, sub-population, to independent adult males, and even beyond the population to strangers. Even in African forest elephants, where social organization seems to be simpler, the smaller family groups still interact with each other regularly.
  • Elephant society is fluid, multi-tiered, and characterized by group fission and fusion. Group membership changes frequently, forming and dividing along lines that may be predicated on the basis of genetic relatedness, close social bonds, home range, season and, in the case of males, their sexual state.
  • The combination of close and enduring cooperative social relationships and fission-fusion sociality is found only in elephants, in a few primates, including chimpanzees and humans, in some cetaceans, and in a few cooperatively hunting carnivores. Elephants hold knowledge and memories of others even when they have been separated for many years.
  • A complex network of bonds between individuals and families characterizes the lives of females and their offspring. Elephant families are composed of a discrete, predictable composition of individuals, but over the course of hours or days these groups may temporarily separate and reunite, or they may mingle with other social groups to form temporarily larger social units.
  • The dynamic activities, association and relationships of males are more fluid and are dramatically affected by annual sexual cycles. Relationships between sexually inactive males are typically friendly, while those between sexually active males, particularly those in musth, may be highly aggressive and combative.
  • Intricate acoustic, visual, tactile, chemical and seismic communication are important components in the functioning of this complex society.
  • The evolution of long-distance communication and long-term spatial and social memory facilitate the functioning of the elephants’ complex fission-fusion society. Elephants use their acute sense of smell and their sensitivity to low frequency sound to locate distant mates, to relocate separated family members, to avoid predators, including humans, or elephant groups they do not wish to meet, to locate previously used routes, to detect imminent earthquakes, and to position distant rainstorms.
  • Elephants are familiar with the voices of as many as 100 other elephants and social recognition is possible at distances of up to 2.5 km. Under certain conditions elephants can hear the calls of conspecifics at distances exceeding 10 km.

Close evidence: Complex Social Organization.

VI: Family of Elephants

Within a multi-tiered social network elephants exhibit strong and enduring attachments, some of which last a lifetime. The support and companionship of family members, as well as the formation and maintenance of close relationships, are vital to an elephant’s emotional and social development, well-being and survival.

Evidence: Social Needs.

  • Members of an elephant family exhibit a high frequency of association over time, display strongly affiliative behavior, including a pattern of greeting ceremonies, and are highly cooperative in group defence, resource acquisition, offspring care, and decision-making.
  • A matriarch, usually the oldest female, leads each family. She determines many of the decisions including daily movements and associations, and crucially she takes decisive action in times of danger.
  • Most family members are genetically related, although individuals who, through chance demographic events, have no close relatives within their family still benefit from the same cooperative behavior.
  • Families may be as small as a mother with one or two dependent offspring or number as many as 50 individuals. The size and cohesion of families varies depending upon a combination of factors, including the elephant species or subspecies, individual personalities and preferences, the formation and dissolution of individual social bonds, the strength of the matriarch’s leadership, historical events such as deaths of influential individuals, the type of habitat and resource availability, the season and the presence of large predators, including humans.
  • Relationships formed within families may last a lifetime. The close and lasting social relationships formed by elephants are remarkable in the context of their fluid social system and persist even with the dispersal of both males and females from their social group of birth.
  • Elephants express what we perceive as joy when they are reunited with individuals with whom they have strong bonds. They grieve and may suffer long-term behavioral consequences of trauma when such bonds are broken through death, capture, translocation or separation.
  • An intricate medley of visual and tactile gestures and displays, as well as elaborate sounds and scents play an essential role in a broad range of social and reproductive interactions and relationships.
  • The probability that a female elephant and her offspring will survive depends upon maintaining strong ties within her social network. The complex emotional and behavioral responses we observe have evolved to cement these critical relationships.

Close evidence: Social Needs.

Additional evidence: Family Ties, Male Elephant Social Relationships and Musth.

VII: Culture of Elephants

Much of elephant behavior is acquired through interaction with others, and social learning plays an essential role in the development and maintenance of elephant social complexity.

  • Young elephants learn normal behavior in a social context, and social learning plays a crucial role in their social development. Calves follow their mothers' social responses to learn who are their relatives and friends, and who represents potential threats. They rely on their social companions to learn appropriate behavioral responses to others. Calves gradually acquire foraging knowledge by sampling what the adults around them are eating.
  • Juvenile females learn vital care-taking skills through allomothering. Contact with other juveniles and infants and their mothers during care-taking provides experience in rearing calves, essential to subsequent reproduction and non-abusive care of infants.
  • Some behaviors essential to mating behavior and mate choice appear to require a social context for learning. The acquisition of estrous behaviors, and the choice of mates, are facilitated by the presence and behavior of mothers, who are often observed exhibiting estrous postures and behaviors around their first-time estrous daughters when not in estrus themselves. Young females appear to have to learn how to behave during estrus, through experience and by watching the behavior of older females.
  • Mothers may be observed to approach or to avoid males, to run with their first-time estrous daughters during long chases, and occasionally to make post-copulatory calls after the young female is mated.
  • The behavior of mothers and daughters during a daughter’s first estrous period indicates the importance of a social context for learning, and suggests that mother elephants may be engaged in a rudimentary form of teaching.
  • Young male elephants are often observed to follow older musth males, testing the same urine spots and females that they do, and observing the subtle maneuvering of males around an estrous female. The successful mating by males of estrous females requires considerable skill, some of which may be gained through watching the behavior of older, more experienced males.
  • Social learning plays an important role in elephants’ use and modification of simple tools.
  • Elephants are capable of imitating sounds, or vocal learning, an ability that is a precursor for language. Such imitation is an important element in their flexible and open vocal repertoire.
  • Social learning is displayed in the acquisition of cultural practices, such as the killing of livestock, the dismantling of electric fences, and the mining of salt licks.
  • The absence of role models for social learning may contribute to the acquisition of inappropriate behavior, such as aggression by males toward females and calves, as has been observed in captivity, or mounting, tusking, and killing of other animals, as has been observed in free-ranging orphaned males.

Close evidence: Social Learning and Culture.

VIII: Longevity of Elephants

Elephants are extremely long-lived mammals. Longevity, experience and reproductive success go hand in hand. Older matriarchs act as a repository of social and ecological knowledge, thereby influencing the reproductive success and survival of their family members, while older males are the primary breeders.

  • Elephants are long-lived mammals, especially for the ungulate group. In the wild elephants may survive to 70 years of age. In captivity the highest authentic age is 79 although this is exceptional.
  • The age of first birth varies across populations, ranging from 7 to 22 years of age, with most females giving birth for the first time between 14 and 15 years old in African elephants, and slightly later for Asian elephants. Fecundity is fairly constant between the ages of 16 and 40 and then declines slightly, though females over 60 can still give birth.
  • Males reach sexual maturity by about age 15-17, but due to their relatively small size and inexperience they do not sire significant numbers of offspring until they are over 25-30 years old, and only attain consistent access to estrous females when they are close to 40 years old. Peak reproductive success for males is attained between 40 and 50 years of age. Males are still reproductively active at age 60, siring as many calves as a 40-year-old male.
  • Mortality varies from population to population depending upon such environmental factors as the level of human induced deaths, and drought.
  • Calf mortality can be as high as 25 per cent or as low as 5 per cent in the first year of life, depending upon human and environmental pressures.
  • The longest demographic study of African elephants, in Amboseli Kenya, shows that males have higher mortality than females throughout most of their lives. Life expectancy at birth is 41 years for females and 24 years for males. In the absence of human induced mortality, however, female life expectancy increases to 54 years and male life expectancy to 39 years.
  • Increased body size, mass, condition and experience are associated with increasing male age. Therefore longevity underlies both the maintenance of the musth strategy and the overall reproductive success of males.
  • Longevity is the key to understanding elephant male reproductive strategies. Males only begin to reproduce regularly by the age of 40, an age by which 75 per cent of males have died. Older males in musth father three quarters of all calves.
  • Elephants as individuals and as groups appear to comprehend the better judgement of older females Calves of young mothers spend significant time in the close company of their grandmothers, family members run to the oldest individual in times of real danger, and groups led by young matriarchs seek out families with older leaders with whom to associate.
  • Advancing age among females is associated with increased social and ecological knowledge and discriminatory abilities. Consequently, the age and experience of a matriarch affects the survival and success of her entire family.

Close evidence: The Value of Longevity.

Additional evidence: Cognitive Capacity.

We stand to lose the largest land mammal on Earth, an animal with great intelligence, prodigious memory, empathy for others and an ability to grieve. Females and calves live in tight-knit families with tremendous loyalty to one another. The death of any member is felt acutely. The death of a matriarch – the oldest female and probably the one with the largest tusks – is devastating, with repercussions for years to come. And among the big bulls there are life-long friendships torn apart when poachers kill one or more of them. The loss of those older males means the loss of the prime breeders with the genes for longevity and robustness that they should have passed on.
— Cynthia Moss, Director of Amboseli Trust for Elephants, Remembering Elephants (book, 2016): ‘An Ability to Grieve’, Envisage Books

The Elephant Charter

Elephants as a species and as individuals have an intrinsic right to exist. We have an obligation to protect elephants and their habitats and to ensure their well-being and continued survival in the face of human encroachment, exploitation and interference. We have a further obligation to maintain the integrity of ecosystems that elephants inhabit, and must take realistic account of the needs of elephants in the planning and management of protected areas and landscapes. For elephants to survive in Africa, we must stop the commercial trade in ivory. We must also support major adjustments in public policies so as to mitigate human-wildlife conflict and to promote peaceful co-existence for the people living alongside elephants. Good governance – and good land managment – in elephant range states is essential to success in this endeavor.

Elephants exhibit an interest in their own lives and empathy for those to whom they are attached. They have an intrinsic right to experience a life of well-being. We humans have the imaginations and creative abilities to curb our demand for the natural resources of the planet and, wherever possible, reduce our reliance on cruel and interventive elephant management practices. Our interventive management practices harm elephant societies and deprive elephants of the opportunity for social learning. We damage the fabric of elephant society when we remove older individuals. Our management of wild elephants must reflect the importance of older males and females in maintaining the integrity of elephant society. We must protect their highly social character and allow elephants to acquire the full range of elephant behavior in a normal social context.

Access – and add your name as a signatory to – the official publication: The Elephant Charter.



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