Behavioural ecology is the study of animal behaviour in response to environmental pressures. The large size of elephants is reflected in their resource requirements: they need access to water, forage and space.

We have to be conscious that the loss of important individuals within these social networks could have far reaching consequences. The older larger males are the first ones targeted in poached populations, as well as sort after by trophy hunters. By removing these key members from a population we could affect the elephant population’s ability to respond to environmental change and for normal ‘bull’ behaviour to develop.

Unravelling more about their social lives is a core aspect of our research and we hope our findings will shape future conservation efforts to ensure that both male and female African elephant social and ecological needs are taken into account.

Here at EfA we believe that a comprehensive understanding of male elephant ecological and social requirements is vital to effectively target conservation efforts, particularly in light of ever-increasing anthropomorphic and environmental change. Our research in the Boteti River region of the Makgadikgadi Pans National Park is important because we are located in a bull-dominated area with very few females present. This gives us a unique opportunity to unravel more about the nature and significance of male elephant social behaviour.

We now know that male elephant social systems are highly complex and males selectively chose who they spend time with. Males tend to seek out the company of the oldest males in a social group, and (in a similar way to female matriarchs) it is now believed that these older bulls are repositories of social and ecological knowledge that is vital to the stable functioning of populations. The loss of key elders in a bull population can therefore have far-reaching consequences and could affect the elephant population’s ability to respond to environmental change. Understanding how these sources of knowledge can shape key behaviours, such as navigation, foraging, dominance and even crop-raiding will help us shape future conservation efforts that ensure that important elephant ecological and social needs are taken into account.