New research shows that younger male elephants behave aggressively when they have fewer elders.

Researchers studied the behaviour of 281 male African savannah elephants in an all-male area in Makgadikgadi Pans National Park, Botswana, over three years. 

They found younger males in the area were less aggressive towards humans and other species, as well as vehicles, when more older males were present. 

This highlights the importance of older bull elephants which are often hunted by ivory dealers and trophy hunters for their valuable tusks. 

Younger bulls can be more aggressive than their elders so removing older male elephants could lead to increased conflict between elephants. 

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The oldest bulls in all-male groups are the most likely to hold leading positions when the elephants travel

The elephants will travel with the oldest bulls, who are usually all-male.

The study, in collaboration with Elephants for Africa, examined the movements of male African savannah elephants (also known as bush elephants) in Makgadikgadi Pans National Park, Botswana

In collaboration with Elephants for Africa the study examined male African savannah (also called bush elephants), movements in Makgadikgadi Pans National Park in Botswana.


African savannah elephants may be the most massive land animals in Earth’s history. One African savannah male may reach up to 13 feet high at the shoulder, and can weigh around 14,000 pounds. 

Their movements cause them to push against trees, allowing for access to the roots and branches. They also use their trunks and tusks to find water and create pools of water that other animals can depend on. 

Poaching and habitat loss are two of the greatest threats to their survival. The human footprint in Africa has increased and elephant habitats were converted to farmland and deforested through mining and industrial logging. Settlements and roads have also been built. 

Poachers eat elephants’ ivory and meat. Sometimes farmers kill them in an attempt to save their crops. Elephants are known for raiding farms. 

IUCN considers African savannah elephant population vulnerable. Both male and female African savannahs have tusks and are therefore targeted by hunters.

There are three species of elephants currently recognized: the African bush elephant and African forest elephant. 

One distinguishing feature between African savannah elephants and African forest elephants lies in their sizes. The savannah is bigger with larger and more curving tusks. 

Asian elephants can have smaller ears than African animals and Asian elephants usually only sport tusks.   

Source: WCS 

The African savannah elephant (Loxodonta Africana), is in danger of extinction from hunting. 

According to WWF, the poaching of illegal ivory traders has caused a surge in elephant poaching in both southern and eastern Africa. This is putting at risk the populations of elephants that showed promise signs of recovery.  

In collaboration with Elephants for Africa, researchers from Exeter conducted the new study. 

Professor Darren Croft, University of Exeter study author said that bull elephants of old are sometimes considered redundant and therefore are used for trophy hunting.

‘These new results highlight the important role that old male elephants can play in shaping the behaviour of younger males, which are more aggressive in the absence of old bulls – including towards vehicles.

These findings are an important reminder to wildlife managers that the removal from elephant populations of older males can lead to increased human-wildlife conflicts.

“Alternatively, bulls older than the age of 10 may be trained to police aggression by males toward non-elephant target animals.”

Due to their large size and excellent visibility, African Savannah Elephants have a high level of study and are easy to estimate.  

One family unit typically consists of 10 or more females and calves. Older male adults only associate with this herd during mating. 

The pre-adolescent African savannah male African savannah elephants are found in herds that are led by the females. However, between 10 and 20 years of age, they move out of their natal families to spend most of their time with all-male groups.  

Elephants looked at for the study were divided into four age groups – two adolescent groups (10 to 15 years; 16 to 20 years) and two adult groups (21 to 25 years; 26 years and over).

When males turn 26 years old, they’re considered to be mature. 

The study tracked populations of the African savannah elephant, the largest land mammal in the world. Pictured are males

This study was done to track the populations of African savannah Elephants, which are the largest land mammal on the planet. These are the males


Trade of elephant ivory (pictured) is illegal

Elephant ivory trade (pictured in red) is illegal

Parties to Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species(CITES) reached a groundbreaking agreement on Oct 17, 1989, imposing an unprecedented ban on international ivory trading.

Unrestricted international commerce in ‘new” ivory is forbidden (CITES 1989), however, many countries allow certain forms of ivory commercial trading within and between their borders. 

These domestic markets are becoming more important drivers for elephant poaching, ivory trafficking and other illegal activities. 


Elephants became more aggressive toward non-elephant targets, such as people, animals, and other species, because there were fewer bull elephants.

The elephants as adolescents were particularly fearful of non-elephant targets and more aggressive when alone than they were with males. These results indicate that adolescents who are socially isolated may be a higher threat to others. 

‘Our research draws attention to what is often a rather overlooked area in animal behaviour – that of the complex relationships and connections that occur between males in non-breeding all-male societies,’ said lead author Connie Allen of Exeter’s Centre for Research in Animal Behaviour. 

“It is possible that older and more educated elephants may be a factor in keeping young, less skilled males at ease and decreasing their threat perception, which in turn means less aggression toward humans.

This new study is published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B today. 

Exeter researchers found that elephants’ older males can lead their young to water and food. 

The team found the probability of leadership – measured by which elephant walked at the front of travelling groups – increased along with age.      

The 2020 study also included observations made at Makgadikgadi Pans National Park in Botswana. The poaching of elephants and human conflict are leading to a decrease in population. 

Old male elephants that are targeted for their ivory by hunters actually play a crucial role within the herd role by leading young male groups to food and water, a 2020 Exeter study found

A 2020 Exeter study revealed that older male elephants, which are often hunted for ivory, actually have a critical role in the herd by leading younger male groups to food.

Botswana, in a surprise move to anger conservationists around the world, announced that it would begin issuing trophy hunting licenses for elephants. 

The Botswanan government granted 287 elephant hunting licenses in 2015, on the grounds that the money from this activity will support local communities. 

Botswana earned $2.7 million (£2 million) from elephant hunting in 2021, officials revealed in November, according to reports. 


International wildlife trade has caused more than 60 percent decrease in the abundance of species, according to a study from 2021.  

International team of scientists, including Sheffield University experts, conducted a meta-analysis of wildlife trade data from 31 studies. 

They found a 62 per cent fall in species abundance overall, as well as an 80 per cent decline in abundance specifically for endangered species, due to both legal and illegal trade. 

Experts also found that protected areas saw declines of up to 56 percent. They claim current protection measures are not effective in protecting wild animals.

Unsustainable harvesting, including hunting, trapping, fishing and logging – which often occurs in protected areas – is one of the biggest threats to biodiversity.  

Internationally, 100 million animals and plants are traded each year for their traditional medicinal uses, pets, bushmeat, or luxurious items like ivory from elephants. 

The international wildlife trade is worth somewhere between $4 billion and $20 billion per year, according to a previous report from Global Financial Integrity. 

Learn more: 60% decrease in biodiversity due to global wildlife trade