The elephant is the largest of them all, and in intelligence approaches the nearest to man. It understands the language of its country, it obeys commands, and it remembers all the duties which it has been taught. It is sensible alike of the pleasures of love and glory.Pliny the Elder, Roman author (AD 23 – AD 79)
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Intelligent and expressive, elephants can be conspicuously joyful creatures. When acquainted groups reunite, they rumble and trumpet, click their tusks together, entwine their trunks, and flap their ears with enthusiasm. But their capacity for happiness is matched by one for heartbreak. Elephants mourn their dead, staying by the bodies of slain herd members for hours or even days.
Matriarchs rule elephant society. Though grown males are solitary, related females live together with their young. These bonds are tight—mothers will do anything for their calves. And like a certain elder you may know, an elephant matriarch never forgets. That powerful memory leads her herd to food and water in times of drought; their survival depends on it.
Elephants play a crucial ecological role in their habitats. They dig pools of water that many other animals depend on; they open forest trails and clearings. Accomplished gardeners, they disperse seeds over many miles, making way for new life to grow. In Central Africa, the tropical forests they help maintain are among our most important resources to fight climate change.
Persecuted by poachers since prehistoric times, revered in religion and mythology, elephants have a complex relationship with humans. The increasing global appetite for ivory carvings—by consumers who may not know or care about the true costs of these products—casts fear across forests and savannahs.
As poachers target the older matriarchs for their large tusks, a generation of young, orphaned African elephants is growing up without guidance. The consequences can be deadly. During Tanzania’s drought of 1993, matriarchs that endured a similar event decades earlier knew where to lead their herds for food and water. Groups with matriarchs too young to remember the previous drought lost more than half of their calves that year.
Continue on to Chapter 2