Line of sister elephants waiting for the bathroom

When Juniper had to go, all her sisters would follow.

An elephant herd is the most enduring social unit for the animal. From birth until death, female elephants will stay with their mother’s herd. Male elephants stay with their herd until 13 or 14 years and then separate. A herd is very tight in order to protect young calves. When there is a physical threat, the adults make a circle to surround the calves. Older elephants (siblings, aunties, or herd members) will tend to look out for calves and help them when stuck in the mud or when they’ve napped too long and lost sight of their mother, or when a larger calf is playing too rough with a smaller one.

A single matriarch is the leader of a herd. There is not much continuous or seriously sustained fighting within a herd because there is an established hierarchy of respect among the adults. Their calves learn this hierarchy early on. The calves wrestle frequently but it appears to be a form of play and socialization.

An African elephant herd size is about 7 to 15 elephants. When the herd grows larger than this, there may be a splitting of the herd to reduce competition for food. Usually a family line (grandmother, mother, daughter) will tend to stay together as a herd.

When a mother elephant is injured or killed (due to poaching or land conflicts), this is very hard on her calves. Abandoned calves less than about three years old will have much difficulty to survive due to their dependency on their mother’s milk for nutrients. Young elephants who experience loss of their relatives or adult role models show signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and may display behavioral issues (for example, possible increased violence).

At the San Diego Safari Park, the elephants do not appear to fight over food. If a larger or higher ranking elephant approaches where an elephant is already grazing, often the first elephant may move away. But at various times, the elephants may stand close together (almost touching) in a group.