Photo ©2005 Jaya Savannah.
When elephant babies are young, they’re inseparable from their mothers and extended circle of aunts and cousins that make up the matriarchal community. It would be unlikely that a young elephant would even have met their father, as the adult bulls roam free or convene in small bachelor herds, only approaching the female herds when seeking mating opportunities. Adult bull elephants do have a hand in parenting, but their role happens later when young teenage bulls need discipline and guidance.
Adolescent bull elephants break away from the matriarchy in their mid to late teens. Sometimes they go off adventure-seeking on their own, and other times the mothers give them a little push towards independence. The young bulls, who have never been left unattended by governing females begin to find their way in the world. But they still need guidance. What they need is the fathering presence of strong adult bulls.
Bull elephants between the ages of 18-30 begin to experience periods of hormonal “musth” when they are flooded with testosterone. They naturally become more aggressive during these periods, but do not yet know how to temper themselves. Unchecked, they become extremely dangerous and will rampage anyone and anything in the vicinity. There have been problems in African game parks where teenage delinquent bulls have started killing off endangered white rhinos for no reason—just a savage expression of power and dominance over a weaker animal. In size and brute strength, elephants are the real kings of the jungle.
This is where the older bulls become mentors. The only thing stronger than a teenage bull in musth is a senior bull. The young ones quickly learn to back down in the presence of elders. Instead of being cocky and violent, they humbly calm down and act respectful in the male herds. In short, they learn to temper their natural aggression and use it more appropriately.
It is still unknown whether the young bulls are with their biological fathers or have found their male bonding group by accident. Research studies are trying to answer this question. But the social structure is undeniable: teenage male elephants need their fathers to socialize them, just as much as they once needed their mother’s milk. They’re a lot like us humans in that way…we need powerful and present fathers to mentor our children, set respectful boundaries, and demonstrate the wise use of power.
Happy Fathers Day!