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Family members play a crucial socializing and bonding role in the birth and development of elephant calves. The presence of mother and family is essential for the survival and the normal, healthy development of elephant calves. Without these relationships elephants grow up socially incompetent and the lasting effects of trauma suffered by elephants may translate into a cycle of violence directed toward human beings and other unusual objects of aggression.

We harm elephants when through human intervention we break close social bonds; in particular our management practices must strive not to break the bonds between mothers and their offspring.

  1. An elephant birth typically occurs in the company of other family members, and most often at night. An infant elephant is usually able to stand within 15 minutes of birth, with assistance from its mother and other adult females.
  2. Family members gather around mother and baby touching the infant, rumbling, trumpeting, screaming loudly, secreting from the temporal glands, and urinating in a display of intense excitement. The excited calling and touching cements bonds between family members and its newest addition. The survival of calves is dependent upon the strength of these familial bonds, which are maintained by frequent acoustic, chemical, and tactile demonstrations of friendly affiliation and solidarity.
  3. Every elephant calf is biologically extremely important to its mother, who must invest much time, energy and effort in producing and rearing a calf to adulthood: 19-22 months of gestation, four years of lactation, and at least 12 years of rearing and protection (less for African forest elephants). Elephants have, therefore, evolved complex emotions and elaborate behaviours to bond with and care for their calves. If a calf is to survive to adulthood, it too must form intense bonds with its mother and with other family members. Bonds between close family members involve strong emotional attachment, which if broken cause individuals observable mental suffering.
  4. Juvenile females show intense interest in newborn elephants and they play a critical role in the survival of calves, offering physical and vocal comfort and assistance, protecting them from obstacles or stresses in the environment, and ensuring that they are safe from predators. Such allomothering increases calf survival and provides young females with an array of care-taking experiences that persist until they give birth to their own first calf. Contact with other juveniles during play or care-taking provides vital experience in rearing calves, which is essential to subsequent reproduction and non-abusive care taking of infants.
  5. After two years of age calves can support themselves on solid foods, although most calves will suckle for as long as the mother will tolerate it. Sons have higher energy demands and are generally allowed to suckle whenever they protest, while mothers are somewhat less tolerant of daughters. Weaning is an extended and gentle process; the majority of elephant calves suckle until the next calf is born and most adult females lactate constantly.
  6. During the first five years of life, calves develop their social skills and form relationships with members of their family. Sons and daughters are treated differently by mothers, and develop sex-specific behavior early in life. Sons are more exploratory, and seek out playmates from unfamiliar families, while daughters are more socially interactive within the family.
  7. Young elephants follow the social responses of their companions to recognize their relatives and friends, individuals who represent potential threats, and appropriate responses to others. They are in continual olfactory and vocal contact with members of their family, and they remain within a short distance of their mothers or another caretaker for most of the first five years of their life.
  8.  Calves who are orphaned become listless and appear depressed. These individuals suffer from a higher risk of mortality throughout life; some form of physiological or psychological vulnerability results even when orphaned calves remain with the other relatives in their close families.
  9. The separation of young elephants from their mothers and other family members can cause lasting trauma. Since young elephants learn normal behaviour in a social context trauma resulting from social loss may have lasting behavioral consequences.