THE ELEPHANT
LISTENING PROJECT

THE SOCIETY OF FOREST ELEPHANTS

Overview
Much of what we know about the social structure of forest elephants comes from observations of interactions at the Dzanga forest clearing by our colleague Andrea Turkalo. Forest clearings, which Central Africans call 'bais', are common throughout the Congo Forest Basin, but only a few have received long-term observations.

Only one population of forest elephants has been studied in enough detail to inform us about their social system. In general outline, female group interactions and male behaviors appear similar to the better known savannah species, but it is important to keep the limits of our current knowledge in mind. Males leave their natal families in early adolescence, after which their social activities consist mainly of competing for rank in male dominance hierarchies. In savannah elephants males spend considerable time roving among family groups in search of estrous females. It is possible this also occurs in the forest elephant, but male forest elephants might instead depend on finding females at forest clearings.

View of Dzanga Bai, CAR with many elephants.

© Melissa Groo

Dzanga Bai, Central African Republic. Family units come together at forest clearings where they re-establish bonds, learn the identity of new infants, and likely engage in many social interactions we have not yet identified. Males and females looking for mates might also be attracted to clearings.

Adult bulls have no involvement in the care of young. Females, on the other hand, spend their lives immersed in a social network which encompasses many families and several levels of competitive and collaborative relationships. Communal care of young is a conspicuous feature of the female society and forest clearings have been an excellent place to observe this 'alloparenting' in action.

The society of elephants is among the most complex known in the animal kingdom. Complexity results from elephants’ ability to recognize and track individuals over long periods of time through changes of age, status, and condition. Over their lifetimes, elephants develop multiple, many-layered social relationships. Elephants also have quite distinct and highly variable characters, and this adds to the complexity of all interactions.

References:

Much of the information on this page comes from Katy Payne's chapter in Animal Social Complexity, edited by F.B.M. de Waal and P.L. Tyack (2003).

White, L.J.T., C.E.G. Tutin, and M. Fernandez. 1993. Group composition and diet of forest elephants, Loxodonta africana cyclotis Matschie 1900, in the Lope Reserve, Gabon. African Journal of Ecology 31:181-199.