The Delinquents of Pilanesberg

“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” — Frederick Douglass was a prominent abolitionist, author and orator born as a slave until he escaped at age 20.

This story is a clear example of the sincere attempts of humans to help an elephant population without properly understanding the unintended consequences. And the sad fact is that culling and separating elephant families either by a cull (which is still legal and practiced) or simply by poaching the oldest and largest members of an elephant society is still a common practice.

Elephants suffer from the debilitating effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, the same as humans do. PTSDThe story you are about to read makes even more sense if this is kept in mind. An elephant doesn’t forget any more than a human does. And this story is a clear example that an elephant’s past history is just as an important factor in its current behavior as the adults that are surrounding and teaching it. One only has to look to gangs of teenage human boys to see the similarities…

In the early 1980’s Kruger National Park in South Africa decided that they had too many elephants so a plan was devised to cull (to kill) a significant number of the park’s population of elephants. At this time they didn’t have the technology to transport large, full-grown elephants so they were killed. They chose to keep the younger elephants alive, however and transport them to other parks in South Africa as well as American and European Zoo’s.

PNPA few years prior to the culling in Kruger a park called the Pilansberg National Park in South Africa suddenly appeared. It was a massive undertaking in which a huge section, over 220 square miles, was fenced off. There were villages inside the park but they were all moved, buildings and homes were taken down, roads removed and indigenous plants were planted to restore the land to a wild nature preserve.

The project was so large it was called Operation Genesis and 6000 animals including 19 separate species were moved into the park rivaling even that of Noah’s Ark. They were thrilled to accept some of the young elephants from the Kruger Cull as well as a large group of black and white rhino’s in the hopes of saving them from extinction.

Years later, in 1993, park rangers began to notice something disturbing. Rhino3Several of the park’s rhinos were found mutilated and killed. At first they thought this must be the act of poachers but the wounds inflicted on the rhinos were unusual and their horns were still intact, something a poacher would never leave behind. As time passed the number of killings grew and experts were brought in to try and figure out what was happening to the rhinos before whatever it was took out the entire population. All of the deceased rhinos has unique lacerations caused by the tusks of elephants in their upper shoulder and back areas.

At first the park rangers and officials didn’t think it was possible that the elephants could be killing the rhinos so they set up a massive stake-out. Hidden cameras were placed in regions throughout the park and some of the rhinos were collared and tagged so they could be followed more easily. To everyone’s shock they soon discovered a small group of bull elephants harassing, chasing and then killing the rhinos in the park. But why? This was the question that plagued everyone. Researchers had never seen this before…anywhere… and it just didn’t make any sense. Soon some amazing scientific discoveries were exposed shedding light on what might be driving the elephants to react in such a puzzling way. First of all, the young gang of elephants were all in a heighted sexual state of musth.

This was completely baffling because the elephants were between the ages of 13 and 18 and though a young bull elephant will begin producing sperm in their early teenage years a bull elephant had never been spotted in full-blown musth until the normal age of 28 (see Poole reference). These young individuals had gone into this heightened state of sexual maturity nearly 10 years early. When a bull elephant is in what’s known as the musth stage, they have testosterone levels that spike to 30-60 times higher than normal. They become incredibly aggressive with each other and with anything else thats in it’s way.

In the wild, however, males stagger their musth periods. They don’t all enter this phase at once, which is a phenomenon still under investigation. Perhaps it is to increase their chances of mating. If all of the bull elephants entered the musth stage at the same time then they would all kill each other before they would even have an opportunity to mate. This way a few elephants enter the musth phase and the rest simply avoid the ones who are in this volatile state.

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Tom Thumb, Maphuto and their mafia-like gang

The young gang of teenage bulls, however, were all in a musth state, and this perplexed everyone. The gang leaders were identified and two seemed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time at nearly every killing documented. One of them was named Tom Thumb and the other was called Maphuto. They were kept under surveillance until the park rangers could decide what to do.

Oddly enough, Tom Thumb was spotted “recruiting” other young individuals in a neighboring park. As soon as he was seen inside the park trouble began there as well. Several young bulls soon left the herd and joined Tom Thumb and his gang inside Pilanesberg. Researchers had never witnessed such deliberate coordination. It resembled a mafia in elephant society. Soon the decision was made to kill off the main members of the gang, including Tom Thumb and Maphuto in order to save the parks remaining rhinos.

A professional hunter was hired to kill Tom Thumb separately but as he was sneaking up on the wild elephant he lost sight of him in the thick underbrush.

Maphuto's sister wouldn't leave his side long after he died.

Maphuto’s sister stayed with him long after he died.

Somehow Tom Thumb sensed he was there and snuck up behind the man killing him before he ever got off the first shot. A second group of professional hunters set out to kill the elephant gang and in a hail of gunfire Tom Thumb somehow, once again, escaped the hunter’s bullets. Maphuto was not so lucky and as he lay dying, like a scene right out of The Godfather, was comforted by his sister who refused to leave his side even after his death.

The hunters decided to let Tom Thumb live for the time being and the killing stopped…for a moment. Tom Thumb stayed close only to Maphuto’s sister and everything calmed down. But within a short period of time the killing started up all over again. This time the rangers discovered through their hidden cameras that the killing wasn’t provoked by Tom Thumb. Another young group of bull elephants had sprouted up and begun killing just like the first group had.

A young elephant attacking a hippo

As soon as the next young male entered sexual maturity and then into musth, once again nearly 10 years premature, others followed and a new gang simply replaced Tom Thumb’s.

All of the experts were baffled as to what to do. With nearly 10% of the park’s total rhino population killed by teenage elephants park officials decided to try something never attempted before. Now, nearly 15 years after the culling in Kruger National Park they had discovered ways to transport full-grown elephants. They decided to bring in several large bulls and females from Kruger National Park that were in their mid to late 40’s as an experiment to see what the younger generation would do with an older one watching over them.

The largest bull, named Amarula was among them. In an elephant society an older male keeps a younger male in check because the younger male isn’t strong enough to fight with an older, larger one. Because of this his musth stage ends much sooner than that of an older, larger sexually viable male.

Almost immediately the younger males approached Amarula. Smaller elephants hero worship ones larger and older than they are. However when one is in a musth state he will go up and try to provoke even the largest elephants as was the case with a younger male. Amarula wasted no time and hit the younger elephant so hard in the stomach that he flew several feet up into the air. This served as a warning to the younger group, that they were no match for a male the size of Amarula, musth or no musth.

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A large elephant bull relocated into the park

The killing stopped literally overnight. The adult elephant experiment worked with incredible precision. Soon all of the younger males were forced out of their musth phase simply by there being older males in the group. With no older males to serve as role models many of the young bulls were coming into musth much earlier and it was lasting longer. This was a significant finding since it showed that having older males around in an elephant society is what keeps younger, juveniles in check. It also keeps their musth stages much shorter and further apart.

In 2001 this same story repeated itself in Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Park, which had also taken in many young elephants from the Kruger Cull. Fifty-eight white rhinos and five black rhinos were killed by a group of young, rogue elephants. Soon after 10 adult bull elephants were transferred in and there too the killing stopped overnight.

This proved that the absence of older bulls in elephant society has serious, even fatal consequences on the younger generation of bull elephants. Introducing adult male elephants back into a community, whether related or not, has a profound effect on whether the youngsters can survive into adulthood.

“I think everyone needs a role model, and these elephants…had no role model and no idea of what appropriate elephant behavior was,” said Gus van Dyk, Pilanesberg Park’s field ecologist.

There is no doubt that one could find similarities to our own human society in which the Department of Justice reports that nearly 95% of state and federal prisons are filled with young men under the age of 25. And there is much science to support that having a positive role model in a young man’s life greatly improves his chances of success later in life (see Arnowitz reference) it seems…the same as it does for an elephant.

Watch a video about this story reported by the late Bob Simon of “60 Minutes”

For more reading see below:

(1) Moss, C.(1983). Oestrous behavior and female choice in the African Elephant. Behavior, 86(3), 167-195.

(2) Poole, J. (1987). Rutting behavior in African Elephants: The phenomenon of musth. Behavior, 102(3), 283-316.

(3) Slotow, R., and van Dyk, G. 2001. Role of delinquent young ‘orphan’ male elephants in high mortality
of white rhinoceros in Pilanesberg National Park, South Africa. Koedoe 44:85– 94.

(4) Slotow, R., van Dyk, G., Poole, J., Page, B., and Klocke, A. 2000. Older bull elephants control young males.
Nature 408:425–426.

(5) Aronowitz, T. (2005). The role of “Envisioning the Future” in the development of resilience among at-risk youth.
Public Health Nursing, 22(3), 200-208.