Elephants live in female family groups (8-10 animals), which are made up of the matriarch (usually the oldest female), related females and their offspring. The matriarch is responsible for the safety of the herd and for finding enough food and water, based on many years of past experience and knowledge. The males stay with the females until they reach puberty, when they leave, or are chased out, to form bachelor herds. Mature males tend to be solitary, except during breeding periods.
When family herds get too large, they may break up into smaller groups, but they do not get too far from related groups; and they always remember each other when re-encountered. Sometimes, several female herds can combine for a period of time, reaching even hundreds of individuals. These large herds are usually only seen in the wet season when water and food is abundant.
Elephant social life, in many ways, centres around breeding and raising calves. The relationships between members of the herd is very tight, with all the females helping to raise a new calf (allo-mothering) and elephants remaining with a deceased member of the herd for an extended period of time. Elephants have been known to recognise a carcass of its species, gathering around, touching and smelling the body and/or bones. Elephants are born with fewer survival instincts than many other animals, which accounts for them having a relatively longer childhood than many other species. They rely on their elders to teach them the things they need to know and the ability of elephants to pass on information and knowledge to their young has always been a major asset in the elephant’s struggle to survive. Today, however, the pressures that humans have put on elephants, from poaching to habitat destruction, mean that elephants die at a younger age, leaving fewer teachers for the young. The fact that older elephants pass on past knowledge to the younger animals also accounts for the ‘inbred’ hatred for humans seen in heavily poached and hunted groups of elephants.
All members of the tightly knit female group participate in the care and protection of the young. The mother will usually select several full-time baby-sitters or “allo-mothers”. These allo-mothers will help in all aspects of raising the calf. They walk with the young as the herd travels, helping the calves if they fall or get stuck in the mud. The more allo-mothers a calf has, the more time the mother has to feed herself, which, consequently, means more nutritious milk available for the calf.
Adult African bulls tend to be solitary or with other bulls in small, relatively flexible groups, however are also frequently found with cow-calf groups when females are reproductively active. Elephants communicate with each other through very low frequency vocalisations called infrasound which travels a distance of 20-30km, and by close contact such as rubbing or entwining trunks, as well as by scent.