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In the 1990’s the death of 39 rhinos left game keepers are Pilanesberg Game Reserve in South Africa puzzled. The rhinos had clearly been killed but yet their horns remained, suggesting that poachers were not to blame. What was more curious was wounds found in the dead rhinos that appeared to be the result of an elephant tusk. Indeed, it was later discovered that a ‘gang’ of young male elephants were responsible for the attacks which is very uncommon behaviour for elephants.


Interestingly, the elephants responsible for the deaths were all orphaned young males all between 13 and 18 years of age. Following a planned cull of elephants in the Kruger National Park a number of orphaned elephants were transported to Pilansberg. The orphaned male elephants had now reached adolescence which comes with greatly increased levels of testosterone and they had become uncharacteristically aggressive. Certain males were also found recruiting other orphaned adolescent male elephants to be part of the gang. 

Baffled by the odd behaviour of these teenage male elephants the game reserve decided to bring in a number of older male elephants to see how the teenagers would react to their presence. Incredibly, the killings stopped overnight. The younger elephants were drawn to the older bull elephants immediately and their behaviour changed dramatically. It had been clearly demonstrated that the presence of older male elephants within elephant society is critical to help manage adolescent male elephants and to demonstrate appropriate behaviour.

For years, there has been anecdotal evidence of elephants having similar emotional intelligence to humans with stories of elephants grieving over deaths of other elephants. Indeed, new technology has shown that the structure of a elephants brain is strikingly close to that of a human brain, particularly the part of the brain involved in processing emotions. 

'Their emotions are exactly the same as ours. They've lost their families … filled with aggression—devastated, broken, and grieving. They suffer from nightmares and sleeplessness.'

Dr Dame Daphne Sheldrick, Elephant Expert.

The adolescent male elephants were suffering not only from the psychological trauma of being orphaned but the loss of the social structure critical for a young male elephant entering the world of adulthood. The young males simply needed an older male elephant to guide them. 

Human boys are no different. Denied the presence of a loving father or father figure in his life a boy will be left to define appropriate masculine behaviour by himself. Too often, gangs and the behaviour of peers fill the void and provide an unhealthy path to adulthood as we saw during the London and Manchester Riots of 2011. Interestingly, the Daily Telegraph reported that common denominator amongst the rioters were that they were largely gang members with no father living at home.

But there is hope and it is the same as with the young elephants. The presence of older men to show them how to be a man and accept them into a community of men.

‘I don’t doubt that many of the rioters out last week have no father at home. Perhaps they come from one of the neighbourhoods where it’s standard for children to have a mum and not a dad…where it’s normal for young men to grow up without a male role model, looking to the streets for their father figures, filled up with rage and anger.’

David Cameron, speaking as PM following the London Riots of 2011.

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